03/11/2014 11:55 am ET Updated May 11, 2014

Don't Leave Your Humanity at the Door; Take it Into Work With You!

As you know, I'm passionate (and concerned) about how people with major illness, like cancer, are treated at work. Along with that, of course, is how caretakers of such people -- who also work with you -- are treated.

Case in point:
A friend of mine who works has two very elderly parents. They are in their early 90s. They live in a one-floor walk up (top floor of a duplex). It's a steep staircase.

Her father is battling rectal cancer, goes for radiation every day (with a car service) and goes for blood transfusions every other week for a whole afternoon. Fortunately, they have Medicaid transportation options. Her mother, who has been the major homemaker all these years, has been taking care of her husband, cooking, cleaning, etc.

It's been like this until last week. Last week, her mother fell in the ice and snow, and although she didn't realize the extent of her illness, a neighbor helped her up her stairs. Two days later the pain was so bad that she couldn't stand it. My friend took the train (she lives and works in Manhattan) and her parents are in another borough. She took her mother to the hospital by ambulance, had her admitted, and it was determined that she had a fracture of her lower spine. They put her on pain meds and kept her two days. Period. I went with her to help her get her mother home. She was so loopy from the pain meds.

Now, she needs to be in bed because she can't do anything. Her husband has to help her. Fortunately they have meals on wheels, so food is delivered. And, fortunately, my friend has been able to line up home health aids. However, they are not there 24/7.

Now here's the relevance of this story.

My friend works. These days, she gets no fewer than 9-12 calls a day on her cell phone. Sometimes it's her father complaining or crying about how he doesn't know how to help. Sometimes it's her mother doing the same. Sometimes it's the physical therapist or the aides wondering how to handle them.

What does this do to my friend's time at work and her productivity? What's she supposed to do? What's the position of her company? She has had to take a few days off... obviously, not everything that occurred happened on a weekend. She does take her cell phone calls -- that's the lifeline. My friend has a sister, but her sister is also only available some of the time and is dealing already with a husband who has a major illness.

So here are some questions:

1. You're her boss -0 what's your position?
2. You're part of her work team (she's a valued, long term employee) and she's not as available to share responsibilities at work right now. What's your position?
3. You work in HR -- what's your position?

This is not a legal discussion, but rather an emotional discussion. How can my friend get her work done so that she keeps her job? Can she work from home to make up for lost time? Can she SKYPE into meetings when she can't be there physically?

Employees (and employers) are sometimes expected to leave their humanity at the door before entering their office. Of course, that's not possible, and business has it backwards. It's biologically impossible for anyone to hang up their humanity -- by definition, everything we do and feel and think is automatically happening to us: that's what makes us human.

Does it behoove companies to help in situations like this? What does help look like? These questions were recently asked of some executives of some very large companies. They were kind enough to let me interview them. Their responses will be reported in a series of my blogs coming out in the next few weeks. I'll look forward to your comments.