when is it OK to approach a colleague about a possible medical issue?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I have a coworker — let’s call him Joe — who recently moved to our office from another office (same company) hundreds of miles away. He’s still very new to our city and doesn’t have a network outside of work.

A few weeks ago, I noticed something distinct about Joe’s appearance had changed (his skin and eyes turned very vibrantly yellow — it later turned out to be jaundice). I didn’t say anything because I feel like it’s impolite to bring up a colleague’s appearance, even out of genuine concern. And because the change was so noticeable, I figured he had to have noticed too. I asked him if he was feeling alright and he said he was a little tired but otherwise okay.

A colleague from his old office visited last week and bluntly brought it up right away (think “what’s wrong with your face” level of bluntness). Joe had no idea that his appearance had changed; he said the lighting in his apartment is very dark, so when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see it. Still, he brushed it off and said it would probably go away. At this point, the whole team began gently encouraging him to see a doctor. He finally did after a few days and was immediately hospitalized for the next four days. Going forward, he has to see a specialist weekly.

When Joe came back to work, he said he wouldn’t have gone to the doctor if we hadn’t encouraged him to, and he thanked us for that.

I feel guilty because if our other colleague hadn’t said something, I’m not sure the rest of us would have spoken up, and I worry about what may have happened if we had waited much longer. I’m also sure that if he was still living in his old city, it would have been caught sooner as he has a large network of friends and family there and no one outside of work here. Joe is a great colleague, but notoriously — usually humorously — bad with basic life skills and we joke that he needs a whole office of mothers to help look after him.

But I also feel like it’s crossing a line to bring up medical issues/appearance with a colleague. Do you have any advice on how this situation could have been handled differently, and how to work with a colleague with Joe while he’s still new in town and doesn’t yet have the friend circle to help guide him with regards to some of these more personal issues?

I think this is an interesting question because on one hand it’s easy to think, “Your coworker’s face is vibrantly yellow! It’s okay to ask if he’s okay!” But it’s also true that it can be exhausting and intrusive for people who are aware of and treating a medical issue to get constant inquiries about it, particularly when they’re trying to work and particularly from people they’re not close to — and typically you wouldn’t assume someone kept their home so dark that they hadn’t noticed they were bright yellow.

In this case, it seems pretty clear that bringing it up was the right thing to do, and Joe’s “I’m bad at basic life skills” persona makes that more so. But I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how to navigate this generally. Readers, what are your thoughts?

{ 467 comments… read them below }

  1. Tehanu*

    This is such a very, very specific case — and as Alison says, there’s no reason to assume that someone wouldn’t have noticed that their face was yellow because of jaundice. I always lean towards the “happy to be supportive if you bring it up, won’t bring it up myself” around physical/health issues. I think it’s safe to say that in 99.99% of cases that’s the way to go!

    1. Autolycus*

      Hard disagree.

      As I said below, I suffer from intermittent jaundice. No, I don’t always know I’m yellow. The rooms I access with mirrors don’t always have the type of light which would allow me to see. So, please don’t assume the person knows. I say that as someone who sometimes knows and sometimes doesn’t. It’s completely dependent on how quickly the jaundice manifests and what environment I am in. My home has good mirrors and natural light. A lot of other environments I am in have lights that make it hard to see what I really look like.

      Also, the risk to me of not telling me is that I can get worse and be in a pre-death cycle before I get another symptom.

      Jaundice is an early warning sign of organ failure, systemic problems, or oncoming anaphylaxis (in some conditions, such as mine).

      Staying silent may make you more comfortable, but it could cost me my life.

      So please risk the social awkwardness.

      If you are too embarrassed yourself, ask someone else to do so. Or point it out to their boss, your boss, or HR.

      If there is an underlying medical condition that the coworker has disclosed to HR or his boss, this will give them a heads up to ask if he’s aware and ok.

      Whatever you do, don’t stay silent if you see this.

      Please. My life might depend on it.

      1. Batty Twerp*

        But just to pick up on one of Alison’s points – if *everyone* in your office points out that you’re having a jaundice episode, would that not get rather tiring? Pop to the water cooler and have three to five (the average number of people I encounter on my way to get a drink, so I’m fully aware I’m projecting) coworkers say “Hey Autolycus – you’re yellow!” I’m not sure I’d really appreciate having that kind of feedback, but YMMV.

        Would it be better if it were one (or two) nominated people who raised it (like HR as you said)? In which case the advice would be closer to – I’m worried about Autolycus, I’ll flag it to HR to approach them, because it’s softer to hear “Thanks, it’s been raised” from HR.
        (But then, I’m a Brit and embarrassed politeness is practically bred in)

        1. TootsNYC*

          I think that having 3 or 4 people say, “hey, you’re yellow!” at the watercooler is the only way someone can approach this.

          1. Autolycus*

            I think how it is approached varies greatly upon the situation and the office. Also, if the person has an ongoing issue looking “off” it’s very different than a sudden change in appearance.

            People can get jaundiced from chronic conditions and they can get jaundiced form sudden onset potentially serious things.

            1. AnnaBananna*

              Yup. Saying ‘hey, you look like an Oompa Loompa’won’t get you any points in any office. But saying ‘hey, are you feeling okay?’ is totally fine (I have chronic conditions, you’re welcome to tell me when I look like hell), because the other half of that convo is the most important – ‘I feel fine, why?’ and then you’re allowed to comment on the Oompa Loompism. Heh, sorry. Jaundice is no joke, so take my comment with a goofy grain of salt.

              But seriously, why are we afraid to engage in mature and thoughtful discourse? ‘Hey, how are you’ used to actually mean something, you know! ;)

          2. TootsNYC*


            Meant: “is NOT NOT the only way someone can approach this.”

            Basically, I really don’t think very many people are going to approach this sort of issue in that manner, and acting as though it’s the only logical happening is a strawman.

        2. Autolycus*

          I think there’s a difference between a case where it’s a known, ongoing issue and one where it’s new and novel. In my case, a lot of people know and will tell me. There’s a system in place to deal with letting me know. I also sometimes proactively tell people “I’m sorry if I look off today, my auto-immune system is at it again.” I do this to put people at ease and to make it a non-starter.

          If it’s something new and novel, then that’s a different ball of wax.

          There are, I think, two issues underlying both cases: (1) Whether or not you should say something And (2) How/to whom

          #1 is clear to me: always say something

          #2 varies depending on context

          In my case, it’s widely known I get issues including jaundice. I have a system with colleagues, friends, family, etc

          In this case, it was a first instance. In that situation, LW should have either told the person directly or, if that wouldn’t work for her for whatever reason, let someone in a position of authority know about it.

          If there’s a boss or HR or someone to tell, just ask “Have you noticed Joe looks a little yellow today?”

          If not, just tell the person they look a bit yellow.

          I’ve had strangers come up to me and tell me. I’ve had to say “thanks, autoimmune system malfunction, but I’ll be fine.” It does get tiring. I’d rather be tired than dead or need a liver transplant.

          Also, a symptom such as jaundice in a person who isn’t known to have ongoing health issues is very different than dealing with a chronic health issue, weight, or other appearance matters. You should treat it as you would symptoms of a stroke or heart attack.

          I really wish companies would offer basic life-saving classes and some guidance on these potential life-ending symptoms. Very few people know the symptoms of stroke or how heart attacks are different in men and women unless they have lived through it.

          1. Stormy Weather*

            Also, a symptom such as jaundice in a person who isn’t known to have ongoing health issues is very different than dealing with a chronic health issue, weight, or other appearance matters. You should treat it as you would symptoms of a stroke or heart attack.

            Nailed it.

            1. Pommette!*

              This is a really helpful way of framing the situation. Thanks, Autolycus!

              I am unfamiliar with jaundice, and would not have thought to treat sudden yellowness as a symptom of an acute and potentially fatal illness. I have a hard rule of not telling/asking other people about their body unless they bring it up first… unless they may be in imminent danger. I would not hesitate to speak up if a colleague suddenly manifested symptoms of stroke; I can see how I should do the same for symptoms of jaundice.

          2. the one who got away*

            I have a very good friend whose father was working temporarily in another state for some period of time. His co-workers began to notice him behaving erractically, seeming impaired, etc and believed he had a substance abuse problem. Because he was far from home his family was not able to observe it.

            Coworkers (or HR, I can’t remember) took him aside to discuss it. Long story short, he had ALS with early-onset dementia and died within a year.

            Reaching out as they did allowed him more time to be home with his family while he was still able to communicate, and I know that to this day they are very grateful for the intervention.

            If it were me and I had a close enough relationship, I’d probably reach out to the person privately and gently and then, depending on the answer, offer to let others know that the issue is being managed and coworker would rather not discuss it.

          3. It's a New Day!*

            Yeah, now that he is in treatment it would get pretty tiring to have to talk about it all the time.

            I like your idea of basic life-saving being a part of orientatation!

            Those minutes could be critical in saving the life of a colleague or visitor to the business.

        3. Hey Nonnie*

          I think this is going to depend on what symptoms you see and what kind of underlying condition those symptoms would indicate (that is, how serious a problem it is).

          If I look tired, it might be an underlying condition, or I might just be tired, but either way I probably know that I FEEL tired and can do something about it if it’s a persistent problem.

          Jaundice is a whole other level. If someone is “vibrantly yellow” it’s not a reach to think this person may have less than two weeks to live without intervention. It’s an indication of something very seriously wrong. I would err on the side of being the 231st person to ask about it, because it IS something that requires hospitalization.

          I would try to pull him aside privately, whether that means pulling him into an empty conference room or sending a chat message, but if someone is showing alarming symptoms, I think it does call for raising an alarm. (And also I’m unaware of a chronic condition that makes you vibrantly jaundiced even when well-managed, so I would always find it alarming.)

          1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

            If it’s something that requires hospitalisation, I would hope it doesn’t get to the 231st person to tell him!
            I’ve been on the receiving end (not yellow, but looked very tired and pale, was totally non-jaundice related) and by the 5th person, I just burst into tears, which is why i honed in on Alison’s comment initially.

            1. Anax*

              Yeah, I’ve been there too – things like obvious limping, obvious mental confusion, fainting, heatstroke symptoms… I’m glad my coworkers care, and I’d rather have them say something – but when it’s a chronic condition, it does get exhausting.

              1. TardyTardis*

                Admittedly, if someone is showing symptoms of disorientation or other medical condition, My Super Nurse’s Aide side shows up, and I have, on occasion, made people sit down, drink water, and get something to eat. So far I have chosen correctly, but I will apologize deeply if I am told to buzz off.

          2. Nita*

            Actually, even being tired can be up there on a list of things to speak up about. If you’re operating heavy equipment and starting to space out because of a change in hours/new medication/bad night’s sleep, you may not be aware that you’re not operating with all your faculties intact until you actually nod off. In my line of work we’re supposed to use a buddy system on construction sites, and one of the things you look out for is fatigue.

        4. boop the first*

          But it’s the context.

          Maybe not everyone knows that bright yellow person = organ failure, but if someone is presenting with a symptom that most certainly means death is coming for them, I think it’s a special case that shouldn’t be lumped in with things like odd smell, giant zit, embarrassing stain, whatever qualifies as no big deal.

          I don’t think anyone would be too polite to talk to someone who is bleeding out of their ears, or having a seizure or heart attack symptoms or is on fire. Jaundice is kind of Up There.

          1. Senor Montoya*

            Not everyone knows that, for sure. Until I read this, I did not know. And I would assume that anyone who was bright yellow knew it — it’s so unusual, it’s reasonable to make that assumption.

            My son got really tired really fast of people remarking on how puffy he looked (steroids to combat chemo side-effects; he got very puffy and gained a lot of weight really fast; many people did not even recognize him). Because he *knew* what he looked like and really did not like being reminded about his appearance and, by extension, about his ill health.

            1. Oranges*

              Thiiiis. I didn’t know either and I’m sick of people asking me about stuff. So I guess “looks way way way yellow” goes on my list of “things to say something about”.

        5. Arts Akimbo*

          Jaundice is far too much of a potential emergency to leave it to HR, though. They might not know how much of an emergency symptom it is– they might treat it like the coworker odor issue and think about how to phrase it and mull it over for a day or two before acting. Honestly, if someone is bright yellow, they need to go to the hospital at once!

      2. AnyoneAnywhere*

        This might be an unpopular comment-

        It’s not fair to give your coworkers the responsibility for monitoring your health for you. if this is an ongoing concern, you need someone to help you who is, say, a family member, partner, or friend. I don’t think it’s fair to say that coworkers should always point out something wrong with your appearance because you personally need them to help monitor you, if that makes sense.

        In general, there are reasons for a jaundiced appearance that are not medical emergencies- high vegetable diet (Beta-carotene accumulates and can resemble jaundice), Gilbert syndrome (jaundice during times of stress). I personally would rather believe that no one notices my skin yellowing occasional- it would embarrass me, were this my situation.

        And beyond jaundice- something like alopecia areata (patchy to complete hair loss on the head) can be embarrassing and people would rather believe no one notices the hair loss, for example.

        TL;DR- don’t say anything, or if you do make it subtle and private.

        1. Autolycus*

          Huge difference between an ongoing health issue than a potential flare up of a symptom that can kill.

          Whether or not it’s fair to ask others to help depends entirely upon the culture and the context.

          Also, jaundice may be a benign symptom and may be a signal of potential fatal issue. It is fundamentally different than hair loss.

          I’d put jaundice in the same category as heart attack or stroke or breathing difficult. Would you ignore those if you didn’t know that there was a non-life-threatening reason?

          1. Hey Nonnie*

            I’ll also point out that Gilbert’s syndrome doesn’t cause vibrant jaundice in the way that liver failure would (from personal experience). I simply have a mild yellow undertone to my complexion. It’s so unnoticeable that I wasn’t diagnosed until my 30s, and even then only because they were testing my liver enzymes for other reasons. Not a single doctor noticed by looking at me, I doubt a layperson would notice either. So I wouldn’t anticipate a real big problem with co-workers constantly bringing it up, because I really wouldn’t expect anyone to confuse the symptoms with liver-failure levels of jaundice.

        2. Autolycus*

          PS My coworkers don’t have responsibility for monitoring my health.

          What they do have is a system where they can let people know if they see something and they have concern.

          There’s al huge difference there.

          I don’t want people to be responsible for my health in an ongoing basis. I do want them to say something if they see something that bothers them and they think it could be serious or fatal.

          There are, for me, two hoppers: potentially life-threatening/serious damage and not. It sounds like your issues aren’t life-threatening. But, for a lot of people, jaundice can be.

          1. Is butter a carb?*

            I think it’s probably up to the other person to notify people. Give them a heads up and say “hey let me know if something is wrong”.
            If I saw someone turning yellow, or purple or whatever though and I had never see that happen, I probably would say something. If someone were just yellow in general, then I wouldn’t, but Like a sudden onset of symptoms. Losing hair or weight loss are not sudden and life threatening. Having someone all of a sudden look really bad, I would ask.

        3. Eeyore's Missing Tail*

          I don’t think Autolycus is saying that it’s her co-workers job to watch her and let her know that she looks a bit yellow. She’s just asking that if you notice it, say something. To me, it sounds more like if I saw that one my co-workers had tucked her dress into her underwear, I’d say something privately to her. If another co-worker had a piece of spinach glue to his front tooth, I’d let him know. It can be private and discreet. To me, it’s part of being human and watching out for someone.

          After my experience with my MIL, I will absolutely tell someone if they look jaundice. Not in front of big group or make a big thing about it, but I’ll tell them once. Then, it’s up to them to decide what to do.

          1. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

            Yes, this! If someone suddenly look more yellow, I would definitely tell because most of the time this means that there is something wrong with their liver and it could be very serious. Like life-threatening serious. I would do the same if someone looked suddenly pale or extremely red.
            Those are sudden symptoms that could end up being a sign of something more. I would do it privately of course, but there is no doubt in my mind to say something.

            Not: “OMG you look yellow”
            But rather: “Are you alright? You skin looks yellow all of the sudden” or “Are you alright? You look pale/Red all of the sudden”

        4. Hmmm*

          That was my thought. It is not up to co-workers to say anything. Especially due to the extremely personal and varied nature of medical conditions. Friends and family have that role but even then you should still take responsibility for your health. I have several conditions that can sneak up on me if I am not diligent so I make sure to stay diligent. When I do have a very visible flair up it is embarrassing enough let alone the dread I feel going into work and having to deal with one co-worker in particular that wants nothing more than to talk about my issues in depth. If a co-worker is bad with basic life skills that is on them.

          1. Cat*

            If it’s a chronic condition, that’s one thing , but if someone has never experienced something before they may have no reason to be on the lookout.

        5. Dust Bunny*

          Joe didn’t, though. He didn’t ask anyone to tell him if he was yellow, or ask for coworkers to pick up his slack because he was tired. As far as we know, he legitimately didn’t know and thought he was OK–we all get a little tired sometimes, right?–so there was zero expectation here of anyone monitoring him.

          I had a coworker ages ago who had some kind of chronic thing where she’d get tired and achy sometimes, so she told us up front “sometimes I get tired and achy” and to ignore it. She was apparently under a doctor’s care so we had no reason to think we should mention it, and as far as I know nobody ever did. If she hadn’t said anything, yeah, we would have been asking her if she was all right, but she’d preempted that.

        6. CheeryO*

          I don’t necessarily disagree, but most of us unfortunately spend more time with our coworkers than with our family or friends, and that goes double for those who live alone. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a few anecdotes where coworkers noticed that something was off with someone before their family did, just because they physically saw them multiple times per day, every day. So yeah, if I see something very unusual and concerning, I am going to lean toward saying something in a tactful, kind way. Again, talking about potentially life-threatening issues, not something like weight gain or hair loss.

          1. Noblepower*

            I’m not saying anyone should stand on a chair in the middle of the office and shout “hey, you feeling alright there, Bob?”, but I work with several folks with diabetes, and I would much rather have my coworkers live another day than avoid annoying them because I noticed the signs of them going low. There are diseases like diabetes where it’s a chronic condition, but the danger signs can and do occasionally creep up on them despite their knowledge of their disease. I always try to be respectful but I’m gonna say something if I genuinely believe you might be in trouble – I would never forgive myself if I noticed something, didn’t say anything, and then found out that you were irreparably harmed. Sweating and chills can lead to seizures and unconsciousness and yes, even death, and there’s an actual condition for folks that have had diabetes over a long time where they can develop unawareness of earlier signs of hypoglycemia.

        7. Kathlynn (Canada)*

          I have coughing-asthma. I often don’t realize that I’m having a mild asthma attack. Because the cough is like those polite little coughs, I cough, then I forget I cough, until it gets worse (in frequency and/or strength of coughing). So one thing I *have* done in the past, is in passing tell my coworkers to point it out to me if they notice me coughing. Because I know it’s annoying to them, and because I know I won’t notice for a while after it starts. Is it their “job”? no, but if I tell them why I’m coughing (and they remember) then they know why something is happening, I can use my inhaler sooner, and prevent my asthma attack from getting worse.

        8. Tellulah*

          No one said your coworkers should be responsible for monitoring your health, just that it’s okay to say something when someone is displaying a potentially like threatening symptom, like jaundice or a cancerous mole. Sorry if you have a regular condition that might look serious, but if that’s the case, presumably people will figure that out. I’d personally rather be slightly embarrassed than not have people warn me about my likely impending death. And while it’s nice to think that sure, maybe their friends/family will tell them, not everyone has that. Coworkers see each other all the time. A little humanity and concern for a coworker and vice versa is not a bad thing.

      3. Not Me*

        But given that you need to rely on others to tell you if something is off about your appearance that responsibility to ask someone to do that is yours. You need to tell your boss, or coworker, or office bff, “I have a medical condition that sometimes changes my skin color and I don’t always know right away, if that happens, will you please tell me?”.

        You can’t assume everyone you encounter will know that or understand you expect them to say something to you. That just doesn’t make any sense really.

      4. Anax*

        I can tell you from experience that family/friends also don’t always notice jaundice – the change can be gradual enough that it’s missed, although someone who hasn’t seen the jaundiced person for a week or month spots it immediately. Change blindness can be really powerful.

        None of us realized my dad was yellow until the doctor pointed it out, including Dad himself, and he was VERY jaundiced by the time he went to the doctor’s. It built up over a couple weeks, and we just… missed it, despite trying to figure out why he was feeling ill and itchy.

        (It was actually pancreatic cancer, but he’s fine now, been cancer-free for over ten years. The tumor happened to block the tiny duct between his gallbladder and liver, which caused the jaundice – and since it was caught REALLY early, they were able to treat it successfully. Go figure.)

        1. Mainely Professional*

          Exactly right. When you see someone (like say your own face in the mirror!) every day it’s very easy to miss changes in skin color. On the humorous side a friend of mine turned orange from carotene consumption (carrots and tomatoes!) and only her brother whom she hadn’t seen in a while noticed. For myself, one side effect of my medication is that it yellows (but not specifically jaundice yellow) the skin, and my doctor’s first comment to me the first visit after I’d been on it for a few months was “Oh good, you don’t look yellow.” But I doubt I would have noticed myself.

      5. Tehanu*

        Just to clarify that my reluctance to intrude is not related to embarrassment, but rather to be respectful. Too often, people with health conditions are bombarded with supposedly well-meaning people asking them personal questions.

        In the case of a serious illness when it’s of benefit for the person to be alerted to changes, as Autolycus has helpfully clarified, it’s a great idea to have a system in place with folks who can let you know if something is off — as long as they’re comfortable taking on that role. Similarly, if someone has a condition such as drug-resistant epilepsy, or severe anaphylactic allergies, having willing co-workers who are aware of the condition and who know how to intervene can be of great benefit. If someone is in obvious medical distress then clearly that needs an intervention. I do want to underline *willing* though. Not everyone may feel equipped to be able to help out in a medical situation.

        But these are a far different situation from the majority of times that I was referencing, when the line between being helpful and being intrusive is extremely easily crossed. The LW’s particular case is specific and unusual compared to most other situations.

        1. WorkerBee173*

          Maybe so, but I’d always still err on the side of caution (e.g. speaking up in person). I loosely knew a person who had a rather embarrassing odor problem after toilet visits, so the coworkers asked the manager to address it: They wound up on sick leave and eventually found themselves a new job, because they were so hurt and disappointed. Just the thought about how long this had been discussed behind their backs alone broke them.

          Since then, I’ve made it my business to mention stuff like that to people. Of course, I have better relations with some than others, and if I think that others might be taking care of it, then I hang back and just keep an eye out. The thing is though, 9 times out of 10, people are grateful, and surprisingly often they have no idea that it’s THAT noticeable. You quickly learn who the chronics are, and then you can stay away or not, depending on their preferences. But overall, we spend so much time at work that it makes no sense not to help each other out where we can, as long as it’s done discretely and with respect.

      6. MissaPie*

        I agree. With a situation like this, the risk of making people uncomfortable is not as important as the risk of someone dying.

        I have a loved one who is a “functional” alcoholic. They are sober enough in the morning to go to work every day, but have managed to give themselves liver problems at an exceptionally young age. I pray that if they showed up at work with jaundice someone would say something. My loved one would probably not notice and would be grateful someone spoke up.

      7. MissaPie*

        I agree. With a situation like this, the risk of making people uncomfortable is not as important as the risk of someone dying.

        I have a loved one who is a “functional” alcoholic. They are sober enough in the morning to go to work every day, but have managed to give themselves liver problems at an exceptionally young age. I pray that if they showed up at work with jaundice someone would say something. My loved one would probably not notice and would be grateful someone spoke up.

    2. TL -*

      Or just try for a more gentle approach any time you notice a drastic, sudden change – medically, those are generally concerning.

      In this case: “I don’t mean to pry but your skin has drastically yellowed over the past week – is this something that regularly happens for you?”

      If they say yes, then you’ve alerted them and they can easily say, “oh I monitor this don’t worry.”

      If they say no, “Sudden yellowing can be really serious; again, I don’t want to pry but I really think you should see a doctor.”

      1. Autolycus*

        Please don’t ask the “Is this something that regularly happens for you?” That’s invasive.

        Do inform them they are different in opinion.

        You can also ask if you can do anything. But only if you mean it.

        In any case, always, always inform about the basic fact of looking yellow.

        1. Constance Lloyd*

          Would something more along the lines of, “This may already be on your radar so please feel free to tell me to back off, but were you aware you’ve started to look awfully yellow lately?” be an acceptable script? I lean toward saying something (privately and discreetly) but would also want to acknowledge that someone’s medical condition and physical appearance are not my business and make it clear I’m not fishing for gossipy details.

          1. Constance Lloyd*

            I should add that I have the tendency to over-tiptoe, so employing the kid gloves too liberally is as much a concern for me as being rudely blunt.

    3. Snow globe*

      While the letter draws on a very specific case, it’s probably not so unusual for a change in appearance indicating possible illness to be noticed by others before someone notices it themselves. We spend more time looking at other people than we spend looking in the mirror. I know a few people that caught skin cancer because someone else noticed an odd mole.

      This is something that hits close to home for me. About six months ago, a coworker died. Several of us noticed changes in appearance, as well as changes in mobility. We strongly encouraged him to go to a doctor, but he kept putting it off. I don’t know if things might have turned out differently if he had seen a doctor sooner.

      1. TiffIf*

        “While the letter draws on a very specific case, it’s probably not so unusual for a change in appearance indicating possible illness to be noticed by others before someone notices it themselves.”

        I see news stories a couple of times a year where people get encouraged to go to a doctor or something is caught because of Facebook photos they post.

    4. ConsultingIsFun*

      This is…patently false though? It is VERY difficult to notice an appearance change in yourself (especially if its gradual). Hell, ask anyone who has lost weight: you don’t really notice until you look at an old photo of yourself.

      1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        yeah, I’ve had a tooth infection that made it hard to open my mouth. I didn’t realize how swollen my face was…then after I saw a doctor, my grandma (who I live with) said “I noticed your face was swollen”. Like no, grandma that’s something you need to speak up about. Soo many bad reasons a person’s face may swell.

    5. Yorick*

      If I looked in the mirror and my face seemed yellow, rather than thinking my skin was changing color, I’d probably think, “the lighting in here is weird!” Other people can just see our faces better than we can.

    6. Mia*

      Idk, my skin has naturally yellow/golden undertones, so I’m actually not sure that I would notice it looking especially yellow on my own. I definitely think respecting people’s privacy with health stuff is important, but something as serious and drastic as jaundice is an exception to the rule imo.

    7. JobHunter*

      To be honest, this was how I learned that I had an underactive thyroid. I just thought that I was working too hard (45-50 hrs a week, filling two roles because of a vacancy), on top of taking a heavy class and moving house. My fatigue continued after my new coworker was hired. She was the one who woke me up at 5 one day and told me that I had been sleeping at my desk all afternoon, something was clearly wrong, and to go see a doctor. Turned out that my TSH was off the chart.

  2. I Will Steal Your Pens*

    its one of those things – does the end justify the means. In a work setting, it can be risky to say something, because of ADA and things. But you worry that if you dont’ say anything, something bad will happen. Like in this case.

    A) don’t beat yourself up for that – for that very reason. This is such a difficult judgement call to make. ESPECIALLY in a work setting

    To me – I think there are some issues that yes, you should “ignore”, but others where it might make sense to at least say something and they can answer however they choose.

    I remember that letter writer from a while ago who had the colleague who was in an abusive relationship. I would wrestle with that one because if something god forbid were to happen to her, I would spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for not saying anything.

    1. I Will Steal Your Pens*

      let me correct myself – technically nothing “bad” happened. I think I misspoke in an attempt to hide my internet surfing while I “work”.

      1. Tehanu*

        In a case of suspected abuse, I think things are a little different than asking about a health problem. I agree that it’s important for a person who might be being abused to feel supported — but I’d try to approach that very carefully and supportively, and do I can to listen to what they need at that moment. As well as letting them know I’m there if they need help in the future.

    2. Purt's Peas*

      OP, yes, this was a very difficult judgment call, and I think you were hovering over it because you knew you weren’t quite the appropriate person to mention it. In the future you might make the judgment call the other way. You might mess it up. The two opposing things to remember are: other people are really not your responsibility AND if you have an opportunity to do something good, try to take it.

    3. Burned Out Supervisor*

      I think it’s ok to ask someone “Are you alright/Do you feel OK?” in a gently concerned tone (preferably semi-privately) in situations like this if you’re someone’s leader. That way you’re not demanding to know what’s wrong, but you’re still showing concern for their well being. If they seem puzzled by the question, you could just say, “I noticed that you’re skin is yellow all of a sudden/your eye lid is drooping and it wasn’t that way an hour ago/I heard you getting sick in the bathroom and just wanted to check in with you.” It seems like a more kind way to go about it.

      1. StrikingFalcon*

        I think certain symptoms rise above that level though. Symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, and other life threatening things should be directly and immediately mentioned. One eyelid drooping (or any other sense of face paralysis, especially one sided) can be a sign of a stroke, for example. Severe jaundice – someone’s skin and eyes turning bright yellow – is up there. He needed to be hospitalized immediately. It’s not the same as, say, commenting on someone’s cane or wheelchair, which they use some days but not others (and I say this as a person with a chronic illness who gets tired of the attention my mobility devices draw).

  3. Elizabeth Proctor*

    I’ll be interested to read comments here, especially in this specific case since jaundice can be a sign of alcohol or intravenous drug related disease.

    1. Elizabeth Proctor*

      And my own thoughts. I think if it is a small office and you’re close with your other coworkers and this is something you’ve discussed with them, one person is designated as the one to check-in with the ill-appearing coworker so it’s not coming from a bunch of people. In a larger office, I don’t know…maybe talk to your boss and see what they think, particularly if they are also the ill-appearing coworker’s boss. I don’t think I would ever bring up something weight-related, though.

      Also, relatedly, the guy from the HGTV show Flip or Flop had a viewer write in about him appearing to have a specific medical issue and it turns out the viewer was right and he got treated.

        1. Bubbles*

          I remember watching Tarek and Christina talk about the nurse and what she did. They had a special about it and had her on. She even said she felt so weird about sending that letter in because it seemed bizarre to have a random person say, “Hey, that looks bad!” But she felt that the benefits outweighed the risks and sent it in.

      1. Autolycus*

        I have a condition that can cause jaundice. It’s linked to an inherited auto-immune disorder. So, I can speak directly not this as a person with lived experience.

        First: Yeah, I get people who think it’s drugs or alcohol. Or that I’m contagious and they avoid me. That’s their bias and perception problem. If they are going to judge, they are going to judge. It’s all on them.

        Second: I absolutely 100% want people to tell me if I look even the slightest bit yellow. I can’t always see it myself. I don’t always know.

        Knowing early may mean my body doesn’t then “cascade” into a bunch of other issues. The end result could be death.

        So, yes, in many, many cases, light jaundice is a sign something is going really wrong and the person needs to be told. One of my doctors calls it “my bodies early warning sign.” He’s right.

        Third: You can simply say “I’m not sure if you are aware of it, but I think you look a bit yellow today. I’m not sure if it’s the light, my perception, or what….” Let the person then deal with it as they want.

        If I know I look yellow, I’m not insulted at all.

        Fourth: Given the choice is between potential social awkwardness to you/making someone else uncomfortable and potential death, chose disclosure. The cost if you chose incorrectly is high.

        Again: Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. You may just save a life.

        – Someone whose life has been saved by people speaking up

        1. AshRadSki*

          In your specific situation, would it make sense to “recruit” your coworkers or managers and give them heads up that you might need help if you start to look a little yellow? This would only work if you felt really comfortable with your office, but I could see sending out an email that says something like “Hey team! Heads up that I have a medical condition that means I might get jaundice. If you see me looking yellow at ALL, please don’t hesitate to tell me! I sometimes can’t tell that I’m turning yellowish myself, so you might be saving my life!” Obviously this doesn’t work in OP’s case, since Joe didn’t know he might get jaundice, but could it work for you?

          1. Autolycus*

            People who know me know all my symptoms and what to do. I have an emergency protocol they all know. So, yes, I’ve taken proactive steps to make sure they know what to do and how.

            The issue is that we are often around people who don’t know. In those cases, I’m urging ya’ll to tell the person whose appearance is discolored.

            Also, I really believe that companies needs to start developing protocols for how to handle these situations. There should be someone designated for you to call if you suspect a coworker has a potentially life-threatening or serious illness or injury.

            1. Burned Out Supervisor*

              Also, some people may not comment because they think “Surely someone else has reported this issue to him/her and I’ll just be bothering him/her.” This is very common for other issues, such as maintenance issues, etc.

        2. ToS*

          Also, think about dignity and integrity when telling them. Say it privately and personally, in an “I noticed” vs. ” a group of us were talking about you” format. Chances are, if it’s a familiar symptom, the person has a protocol/health professional, etc.

          Offer or give the person some space for a next step, such as asking “Do you need a minute/some space for addressing this?” And LISTEN. They are the expert. If they are managing their body’s mischief, maintain that dignity & integrity. Ask how you can be most helpful.

          If this is new – refer to resources that are available to all employees, such as EAP, health benefits, or time off to go to any range of health providers, urgent care, or even an emergency room via a ride, Lyft/Uber/Similar, or calling 911* depending on what matches up with the level of symptoms. Not everything requires an ambulance/ER. Some people might be looking toward a specialized clinic, if it’s an outgrowth of chemotherapy or dialysis.

          *calling 911 is something that can be done for ANYONE, not just people with disabilities, however people may decline to get in an ambulance if the symptoms abate. Refrain from commenting/gossiping if they do not get in the ambulance and instead opt to go home. No one wants to be a spectacle, especially if someone else called 911 in an abundance of caution. Give that person some grace, too.

          Sometimes new employees are shifting health insurance, so talking to HR about benefits can also help someone navigate that transition if it’s affecting work.

        3. I'm just here for the cats*

          I had jaundice a few times this past year. Found out it was pancreatitis caused by gallbladder issues. the first time it happened I couldn’t really tell and wasn’t really sure. It was summer and I figured maybe I was just getting tanned. The second time I was in the hospital for my gallbladder issue and I could really tell then. So could the nurses and my mom. She said that I hadn’t been that yellow since I was born (i was a jaundiced baby. Can’t remember the reason why but it wasn’t a big health issue).

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Right? My dog got it secondary to . . . one of her other serious ailments. I think it was after the second round of pancreatitis, but I’ve forgotten now. I am 100% sure she was not drinking or using drugs.

    2. Candy*

      There are plenty of other things that cause jaundice besides alcohol and drugs. And even if it were caused by alcohol or drugs, I don’t see how that makes a difference.

    3. Purt's Peas*

      I think the key you’re hitting on here is that it could be pretty rude to attempt a diagnosis. Jaundice isn’t necessarily a diagnosis; if you’re telling someone about it you wouldn’t want to offer your opinion on the cause. So you don’t want to say “HI, WERE YOU HITTING THE IV DRUGS HARD YESTERDAY?” you’d want to say, “hey, your color’s off and yellowish–are you ok?”

      1. Em*

        This is such an important distinction. Diagnosis probably shouldn’t be speculated. But if you notice a symptom I don’t think it’s bad to take someone aside and let them know. And definitely save it for things that haven’t obviously been addressed? I have a huge scar and get comments on it when people see it. It’s not terrible that people say something, but it can be a little wearing to hear immediate concern over such an old scar.

        1. Artemesia*

          There are a few things that someone else might observe e.g. a possible melanoma, especially if on the back of the neck, or head, or arm or leg i.e. where it might be overlooked by the person. Paleness or jaundice. a lump or swelling in the neck. I have a friend whose stage 4 cancer announced itself with a lump in her neck — alas no warning up to that point when it was too late to cure; at least she has had some increased ‘good time’ due to treatment. I think when you see something concerning, and you don’t know the person is aware and dealing with it, then a quick private heads up is the right thing to do. And if 12 people have done so that day, apologize and don’t mention it again. But usually people hesitate and so you might in fact save a life.

          Jaundice would be worrisome because of course HepA which is one common cause is very contagious and it is also a symptom of many conditions which are dangerous and need aggressive treatment.

          1. Em*

            Right, even with a melanoma you’re not saying “You have a melanoma on the back of you’re neck,” you’re saying “There’s a really concerning mole on the back of your neck that your doctor should probably look at.”
            Or with jaundice, you don’t pull them aside and say “You have HepA,” just stick to the facts and don’t draw conclusions. That’s what I was getting at.

    4. Elizabeth Proctor*

      (A family member of mine has liver disease from alcohol/drug use, which is why this came to mind for me.)

      1. Maria Lopez*

        Jaundice is more end-stage liver disease in an alcoholic, and it is unlikely that person would be working.
        It’s more common to have one of the hepatitis diseases, and hep A is contagious, so I would have probably asked if they realized their skin and eyes are yellow.

    5. TootsNYC*

      and it’s still a health problem.

      So I wouldn’t talk about cause–that’s not my business to diagnose.
      But I would say, in private, in the tone of someone who wishes them well and is trying not to be overbearing, “Your skin seems awfully yellow lately. That just doesn’t seem normal. I wonder if you should talk to a doctor about it. I really am a little worried about you.”

    6. OyHiOh*

      I went immediately to a friend who had felt “off” for months, started having muscle tremors, turned yellow . . . fortunately, they were seeing their doctor regularly because the day they went in with increased feelings of illness and vivid skin, their doctor sent them off to a specialist hospital and three weeks later my friend had a full liver transplant due to a rare disease that their parents are carriers for. Yes, I’m aware of the House episode that follows this scenario and the disease is the one in that episode. Our shared social circle watched it several times. Anyway, friend got the transplant and is doing amazingly well but, because of my particular experience, I probably wouldn’t default to drugs or alcohol unless there were psycho-social hints at the later.

      1. TootsNYC*

        and even if it is drugs or alcohol–they’re still sick, right? They still probably need medical care.

    7. Mia*

      There a ton of health conditions that can trigger a jaundice episode, but even if there weren’t, something being rooted in addiction doesn’t make it less serious or necessary to ignore. Like if someone in my office had a seizure because of opiate withdrawal, I’d assist them the same way I would someone seizing because of epilepsy.

    8. Agnodike*

      Why would that make a difference? If you have jaundice, you are unwell and need medical attention, regardless of the root cause of the jaundice. You don’t need to say, “Hey, your eyeballs look unusually yellow; any chance you have Hep C from IV substance use?” to point out the jaundice, any more than you’d have to say, “I’ve noticed you have a persistent cough; any chance you have fungal pneumonia secondary to AIDS?” if you were worried about someone coughing all the time.

    9. Perpal*

      The main thing is you don’t have to speculate WHY they are yellow, just ask if they have seen a doctor about that.
      I realize some might not know it but usually severe “bright yellow” jaundice is a sign of major organ failure. It can be from autoimmune problems, a drug reaction, a gallstone, pancreatic cancer, or yes, chronic alcohol use, or viral infections. For the chronic conditions usually bright yellow would be end stage and I’d be a little surprised if they were able to go to work.

      As far as when to comment on coworkers… I don’t know that there’s one true answer but something that seems really serious (stroke, jaundice, very erratic behavior) seem worth it.

  4. Ruth (UK)*

    I think this is one where it’s difficult to find or give any single answer. I think it’s very much case-by-case depending on various things such as how well you know the person, how likely they seem like someone who would appreciate being told, how good you are as the asker at bringing it up tactfully or subtly. Are there other people in a person’s life better placed to bring it up with them? Also, how severe the problem is (or seems to be) and/or how sudden the change is. How likely is it they don’t already know? (though as we can see from this letter, it can be hard to tell). I think there are lots of things that would affect whether or not I’d say something to someone, and it’s hard to say whether I would or not in general – as it would depend on too many specific things within a case.

    1. Leslie Knope*

      Right. This is definitely a “know your audience” type of situation. There are so many variables!

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        In my opinion, if it’s a symptom that could mean something acutely life-threatening, then there aren’t any more relevant variables. It’s never impolite to save someone’s life!

    2. Dan*

      Yup. I can’t blame OP for keeping her mouth shut around a coworker that she doesn’t know that well. That’s the smart “get along with your new colleague” play.

      Joe’s coworker from the old office who knows Joe well enough to know that yellow isn’t his typical look? That guy has standing to say something.

      There’s always going to be a tradeoff being keeping one’s mouth shut to the detriment of overlooking real problems, vs getting into someone’s business when it’s not the place to do so. We as a society certainly err toward the “MYOB” side of things, and TBH, I prefer it that way.

        1. Lissa*

          It’s not even just the bystander effect! It’s that there’s been a increase in awareness – on sites like AAM even! about comments on people’s appearance being bad. There’s been so much written that in the past, where someone might have mentioned sudden weight loss, for instance, now they are likely not to if they’re part of the more modern takes on these things.

          So essentially someone who might have been the “helpful office busybody” may now think the better thing to do is in fact to NOT say something.

  5. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    I feel like, if I suddenly turned the color of some fruit or vegetable and one of my coworkers asked me “Hey, are you okay?” the possible outcomes are either:

    a) I am aware and don’t really want to talk about it, in which case I go “Yeah, it’s a thing I’m dealing with, thanks, has the ATB report been run yet?”
    b) I am not aware and I go “Yeah, fine, why do you ask?” at which point they can go “Well, you’re approximately the shade of the banana/orange/eggplant I had with my lunch this afternoon, and that’s not usually the case.” I then have the option to go “Huh. That’s weird” or “Yes, I was experimenting with makeup and it was not a success” or whatever else seems to make sense to me at the time and decide whether it’s a thing I want to follow up on.

    But I think, as long as there’s a true work-appropriate explainable reason for asking, “Are you okay?” has a lot of leeway to address concerns.

    1. ThatGirl*

      I would agree with this. I also think, though, that you need to know your audience – I wouldn’t ask that of a random person I see occasionally in the lunchroom, but a closer coworker, I probably would. I have a coworker who is currently in PT because for a dislocated collarbone, and it’s something the few of us in our cube area have discussed with her – for instance when she was wincing noticeably in pain, repeatedly, we encouraged her to call her doctor and leave for the day. In Joe’s case, if his coworkers knew he lived alone, was sort of in need of some mothering, and didn’t have a strong local support network – I wouldn’t see any harm in asking.

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I forgot to specify too — in the case of situation (a), the “are you okay” asker should always, ALWAYS, 110% under all circumstances completely roll with the change of subject. “No, hasn’t dropped yet, but Rachel usually runs it by 2pm, so if I see it before you do I’ll let you know.” No further questioning is appropriate.

        1. ThatGirl*

          oh, for sure, if the person being asked doesn’t want to discuss it or changes the subject, that’s your cue to shut up.

        2. Quill*

          Yeah, that seems to be the key in terms of where it will tip the scale from “human concern” to “people without boundaries.”

          Someone with hives, for example, could be having a life threatening reaction or they could be in the process of discovering that their new sunscreen hates their face, so I think the better idea is to have a respectful script for asking (when it’s a change to the coworker, not for something that they just look “different” from other people!) and then if it annoys them backing off at the speed of light.

    2. fposte*

      I also think changing color is one of the more benign examples, compared to asking about weight gain or forgetfulness, for instance.

      Of course, it’s also easier if it’s not somebody new–I have longterm colleagues from whom I’d easily accept “Is everything okay?” and could ask it in the other direction. With somebody new as Joe, it’d be trickier.

    3. Ashley*

      This really comes down to relationships. I had a co-worker ask me what happened to my eye and was convinced I had a black eye. Meanwhile It was just my normal black circles. It was super uncomfortable because even when I said nothing repeatedly she pressed. She never should have asked.
      In this case I would have suggested maybe saying something to his boss or if it was a known no life skills maybe politely quietly said, hey are you ok? You look a little yellow.

      1. TootsNYC*

        this brings up something people should factor into their decision.

        Is there something you might be able to do differently?
        A black eye just heals; it doesn’t need medical intervention. It’s a single injury. It’s not recurring; it’s not a potential signal of some serious problem, nor is it something that could get worse if ignored, nor does it signal unnecessary suffering.

        And of course, continuing to press is a bad idea in general.

        I mean, if you’re sort of close to someone at work, and they say, “oh, I know I have a cough, but I don’t need to go to the doctor,” then based on your closeness and the degree of openness they have in the office, I think you can try to persuade them to change their mind and explain why you think it might be urgent or important.
        And then as in all situations, there comes a point that you need to just respect them and move on. You’ve planted the seed; hopefully they’ll evaluate later and care for themselves well.

        1. Goliath Corp.*

          Hmm there are so many layers to this, though. My friend once had a black eye at work and she was pretty perturbed that no one in her office asked her about it. Just a “hey, do you want to talk about this?” would have been a gentle way of opening the door for her to disclose domestic violence, if she wished to.

      2. New Job So Much Better*

        Had a former coworker who would tell me one side of my face is swollen, every few months. It wasn’t, and it got annoying.

      3. Vegas*

        As a DV survivor, that person might have been pressing because they were concerned. Do not say that she should never have brought it up. That is how people find lifelines to escape situations. So she was wrong, okay, but don’t be upset at her for trying to help. Maybe someone she loved was in a situation like that and so to her, that’s the explanation that made sense.

        1. Lissa*

          I feel like this is where people feel like they can’t win. On the one hand, you have people saying coworkers should never ask. Then someone else perturbed that coworkers *didn’t* ask. I feel like overall, people are trying to do the best they can and generally aren’t going out of their ways to be jerks, so I think it’s best not to get too offended at reactions in either direction – I mean, unless it’s something super extreme and rude of course.

          1. SebbyGrrl*


            It’s just so man shades of familiarity, socialization, boundaries, professional norms…

            What stuck out to me was the ill co-worker was male. People had said something and he said he was fine – like a lot of men (women too but differently) who really won’t/don’t go to a doctor unless … they perceive a different level of dire or some just won’t go ever.

            Were I in OPs shoes I would have done the same – he said he was okay, he doesn’t seem to think he needs medical intervention, he set a boundary, he doesn’t appear to have other more obviously dramatic/life threatening symptoms…

            Relationship calculus.

            I appreciate Autolycus’ first person perspective and example of how to do this well.

            But in hindsight, I have SO been THAT co-worker, asking about health, weight, “you look tired” and I want to change that…

            It feels like there’s not a great solution, lots of great scripts and contexts to guide us, but were it me and I said something and this coworker in this instance I would have left it alone – not my circus, not my monkey, an adult male said he’s okay it is my job to take him at his word…

            Not sure there’s a win here.

    4. Person from the Resume*

      I agree. I think if you are the concerned the person is not aware of the change, you can mention it once.

      If they say that they are aware and dealing with it, drop it quick. I know it can be annoying to the possibly sick person if everyone they see is bringing it up to them, but as this letter demonstrates sometimes no one says anything.

      If they aren’t aware, you let them know. It’s trickier and more dependent on circumstances, but this is a case where it is good that the coworkers insisted that the jaundiced guy with no close relationships in town see a doctor. I think you have to play this part by ear based on personality, closeness of relati0onship, entirety of the situation.

      1. No Longer Working*

        I agree also. A coworker once showed me a red, circular rash on her leg or arm, I can’t remember which. It looked like the pictures of the bullseye rash that’s a sign of Lyme disease; I told her so, and that she should get it checked out. She did go to doctor because of that and got the treatment she needed. I’m pretty sure she appreciated that info.

    5. Purple*


      Turning a new color isn’t like having IBS, it’s like breaking your leg. If your coworker breaks their leg and you have any kind of rapport you’re not going to just ignore it.

      1. Radio Girl*

        A private conversation is all it takes. I would never be able to live with myself if I ignored something like this.

      2. Witchqueen*

        That’s really dramatic lol. I’m with in the, “see something say something,” but the people I work with are under no beholden or unspoken social contract to help me maintain myself.

        1. Anneanon*

          It might sound dramatic to you, but actually Mike is the only person in the history of AAM to take workplace safety seriously so.

        2. Oxford Comma*

          I know someone who only got diagnosed with Ovarian cancer because a coworker thought she looked off and asked her privately if she was feeling all right.

          We are human beings first. Do I want you coming to me with questions about the diagnostic tests I have undergone, offering opinions about my treatment, prognosis, and so on? No. Do I want you saying, “Oxford Comma, you don’t seem yourself and you look really pale. Is everything alright?” Yes.

          1. CastIrony*

            I agree on asking. My sister appreciated it when a customer noticed she was pale. Thankfully, she’s okay, other than winning the fight against a cold/bronchitis for the past month.

        3. Eirene*

          It’s not making your coworkers responsible for maintaining yourself to ask a question of them that comes from a place of genuine concern and compassion. Jeez.

        4. ExceptionToTheRule*

          It’s really dramatic until it happens in your workplace. I had a co-worker have a heart attack at work not long ago. If we hadn’t noticed him turning gray & waited even a couple more minutes to call the ambulance, he’d be dead right now.

      3. Bend & Snap*

        I didn’t say it wasn’t my problem. I said it wasn’t my business.

        I 100% would never want someone asking me about a health issue at work.

        1. Mike C.*

          So you start smelling toast and your face starts to droop and you’re suddenly having issues speaking and you wouldn’t want anyone to ask you about that health issue? Does that really make sense to you?

          1. Anneanon*

            Does you really think this is the same situation as someone whose skintone has obviously been a drastically different color for an extended period of time?

            1. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

              “Does you really think this is the same situation as someone whose skintone has obviously been a drastically different color for an extended period of time?


            2. Eukomos*

              Turning yellow can be a sign of imminent liver failure, that’s why people are telling you to treat it as an emergency. It’s not on the level of getting a little paler because it’s winter.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Okay, I don’t know how we (society) correctly and quickly identify everyone with your preferences. People don’t have labels on them, which most of the time is good.

          I sincerely hope that if (fate forbid) you were on the floor for some reason, you would appreciate someone checking on you.

          I think the question is more about what do we do when it’s someone else, not our own selves. I think probably if you saw a person who was clearly in serious trouble, you’d at least call for help for that person.

      4. Kathlynn (Canada)*

        yeah if people decide things are never their issue, I or several other coworkers *could* literally die due to chronic illnesses that can suddenly turn fatal. Among other safety issues that can occur at work

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I’m mostly in your camp. If they are experiencing a physical or mental health issue that isn’t a call-911-right-now type of emergency, I’m not really qualified, or in most cases prepared to offer more than “you should see a doctor,” which doesn’t really help anyone and therefore should be left unsaid.

      The only time I would step in is if they need me to call 911 for them because they are: bleeding profusely, gasping for air, incoherent, unconscious, or showing signs they are a danger to themselves or others…

      1. ConsultingIsFun*

        Not to be rude, but this guy probably would have died if someone didn’t say something. If you’re fine with that…

        It takes a village, people. When did we lose that notion?

        1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

          I do not subscribe to the notion that I am beholden to take care of anyone but myself, but if you read my second paragraph, I did indicate that I would give assistance in an emergency.

          Death is an inevitable part of life — we will all die of something at some time — so I’m at peace with people dying, even those I love. If you believe in an afterlife of any kind, it shouldn’t be a horrific thing that people move on to the next stage.

          1. Anneanon*

            This is the wildest thing I’ve read all day. You shouldn’t be at peace with acquaintances dying because of easily treatable medical conditions that they didn’t realize they had despite obvious symptoms! JFC.

          2. Not a Blossom*

            Not everyone believes in an afterlife. In fact, millions and millions of people don’t.

            And yeah, we’re all going to die, but doesn’t mean we want to go well before we have to because of a treatable condition.

            1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

              Wow, no, my belief system is not a troll, even if others don’t believe that same as I do that death is not the end.

              1. Mike C.*

                You’re telling us that you’d rather say nothing and let your coworkers die and that’s fine because “you’d be at peace with it”. Why is your peace the only point of concern here? Don’t you think your coworker would like to live on? That their friends and family might want to continue to enjoy their support and company?

                What is wrong with you?

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  Agreed, Mike C.

                  Typically, people make peace with a person’s passing AFTER the person has passed NOT before they pass. And definitely not before they know passing is eminent.

                  I believe in the afterlife also. But I believe that while we are here on earth we do have a duty to take brotherly or sisterly care of ourselves and interest in each other. We don’t have to invade people’s personals lives, but it’s a commitment to help preserve and protect life where possible.

                  People can say, “No thanks, I am good here.” And they do. My husband said he was fine just before he keeled over and died. Until he actually passed, I did everything I could think of to help to protect whatever life he had left in him. He knew that I would stick with him no matter what happened to him. And he also knew that his body was just worn right out.

                  It’s about balance. I think that if we believe in something greater than us that increases our responsibility now. as opposed to relieving us of that responsibility.

                  Looking at from another perspective, I have a friend who does not believe in anything beyond this plane. She says for her that increases the importance of her choices in how she treats others now, because this is it. This is all we get. So it’s up to each of us to take care and bring joy to each other. (And she does these things very well.)

                  I have never had a coworker tell me off for asking a personal question. But if they did, I would just apologize and never mention it again. I knew before I started the conversation I could be told to MYOB in no uncertain terms.

            1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

              I Don’t Know How To Explain To You…boy all the caps are dramatic…that not fearing or reviling death, that a belief that death is a natural part of life and is not the end, does not equal not caring about other people or treating them well. I revere life…and death; but the Christian notion that I am my “brother’s keeper” isn’t one I subscribe to. And for Not a Blossom — there are millions of us too.

              1. Nita*

                OK, maybe you’re cool with dying 20 years earlier than you otherwise would, but your coworkers may not be. For various reasons that don’t necessarily involve fearing death (having other plans first, being caregivers, just got out of a bad situation and want to enjoy being free of it as long as possible, you name it). And they might appreciate a heads up that they’re visibly looking off and may need to see a doctor. It can be something that’s not going to destroy their quality of life if it’s addressed quickly. Anyway,

              2. Sleve McDichael*

                Ok sure I might not fear death but my family and friends are going to pretty darn upset if I die early from something easily treated like a burst appendix, and I love them so I go to the doctor.

              3. Mike C.*

                It’s not just a Christian notion, every major belief system, religious or no, has the concept of “look out for others” because it turns out that we all live in a society and it’s helpful to have folks looking out for us in turn.

                1. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

                  Amen to that!

                  I truly wonder what “Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain” would do if a co-worker would have a heart attack right in front of them and no one else was around… would you just leave? Cause you know, we all will die anyway…

              4. Queer Earthling*

                The caps are because it’s a meme.

                And like…the fact that YOU’RE at peace with the death of your family, friends, coworkers, and self doesn’t negate the fact that most people would really like to not die unnecessarily if there’s something that can be done about it, but there really isn’t a point in discussing this with you, because you don’t care.

          3. No bees on Typhon*

            The thought that belief in an afterlife can make *this* life feel so… disposable is one of the things that scares me the most about religion.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I don’t know why I am seeing more if this now than I have ever seen in my life. I agree with you, however. I don’t feel comfortable with it.

          4. Elizabeth West*

            I wrote an entire book that deals with the afterlife and people’s reactions to it. But quite honestly, if you or someone you love is not in the stage of actively leaving their existence, it’s easy to be philosophical about it. In the moment, not so much.

            As other commenters have pointed out, sudden and severe jaundice can definitely be a sign of a pending medical emergency. Soooooooo…if you’d react in an emergency, this kinda fits the bill. The more you know.

          5. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

            Wow! I believe in an afterlife. And yes everyone dies. Why eat or drink? Everyone is going to die anyway. /s

            Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help someone in need. If someone passes out, I will do my utmost best to help them. If someone suddenly looks yellow/pale/red, I would show my concern and inform them. What they do with the info is up to them, even if it is a chronical condition they shouldn’t be forced to explain it to me. Heck, if they choose not to go to the doctor, I would let it go. But I would not not tell them when I see that they suddenly changed colour.

      2. Goliath Corp.*

        You don’t need to be able to diagnose someone to suggest that they see a doctor. My mom’s brain tumour was only discovered after her boss finally sat her down to insist on her seeing a doctor, since she had noticed some significant changes in my mom’s memory and other cognitive faculties.

        (Yes, I wish our family had noticed, but we thought it was normal aging stuff and didn’t see the impact on her professional life.)

    2. grace*

      I’d rather someone be annoyed that I politely asked if they were okay due to xyz external symptom than have them not be okay, and I hadn’t checked in because I was … what, worried about them being upset?

    3. alwaysbekind*

      While I don’t promote uncalled for intrusiveness, I think it’s basic human decency to mention something that’s potentially serious, as long as it’s done privately in a compassionate way. It’s sad when we can’t show concern for others because we risk offending someone. (I posted this down thread, but I think it applies to this one as well.)

    4. CM*

      Bend & Snap and Mike C., I think both of you would be good coworkers to have at the same office! Bend & Snap would leave me alone when I had some exhausting issue I didn’t want to talk about, and Mike C. would check on me when I was sick. I might be annoyed at one of you at any given time, but overall I’d be doing OK.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        Thank you! I don’t think Mike C and I should work together since he apparently thinks I’m human garbage but I appreciate the comment.

  6. Mid*

    I think it’s okay to bring it up once, in a private setting, and then not again, unless it’s something clearly severe, like this case where someone was obviously jaundiced, or if someone is not in their right mind (a coworker of mine had a concussion and didn’t notice that she was concussed, making no sense while speaking, etc. Our boss had to send her home, and said she couldn’t return without a doctors note clearing her. But this was an extreme case.)

    But if the person declines to get help, or doesn’t want to discuss the issue, leave them be. They’re an adult, and can make their own choices. Bring it up once, maybe a second time if it’s something that’s obviously getting worse, and then let it go.

    This also assumes you’re close enough to the person to talk about personal things. If you aren’t, I’d talk to either their manager or someone in the office they’re close to, and only one time.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      I agree with you about it needing to be 1) private and 2) one time.
      If a bunch of coworkers are talking about it, select a single person (ideally someone close to the person or a boss if possible) to talk to the coworker so they don’t have a bunch of people asking them if they are ok. Yeah, it might drive the point home that something is off (if they are like my husband and sister and ignore things that aren’t shoved in their face), but if it is a side effect of a new medication or something, probably annoying for them.
      I would also try to be pretty clear in why you are asking – a “Hey…are you ok, you seem off?” doesn’t seem very specific and could be interrupted a variety of ways. “Ummm Joe, I don’t really want to pry but you’re skin and eyes are very yellow and they weren’t like that when you started here a couple weeks ago. I think you should probably go get checked out by a doctor” or “Lacy I’ve caught you sleeping at your desk 3 times already this week – are you getting proper sleep or are you not feeling well?” or “Monica your speech is all garbled and your smile looks funny – I think something is wrong. I think we need to call the paramedics”.

    2. Nerdy Library Clerk*

      This is where I come down on it, too. Basically, don’t make a big deal about it, but let them know. And definitely don’t get pushy about it.

      Then again, in my workplace, if someone came in bright yellow, I think about half the staff would go: “Holy crap, Name, you’re yellow! Are you okay?”

  7. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I feel like the right answer here would be to tip off a supervisor with something like “I noticed Joe’s looking a little different. Do you know if everything’s okay?” And then hopefully the supervisor would bring it up with Joe, rather than having multiple people address it. Plus, if Joe is aware and under treatment, the supervisor could say something like “Yes, he’s fine, we’ve discussed it” or something like that.

    But that also feels very… awkward, so I’m not sure if it’s really right or not. Ideally, I think whoever is closest to Joe should mention it, but since he’s new to the office, there probably isn’t anyone close.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yeah, the worst thing is being asked about a known issue by 20 different people in the same day, each of whom thinks they’re the first, and having to explain it that many times.

      1. Autolycus*

        The worst thing that can happen is no one says anything and the person dies.

        As someone for whom jaundice is an early warning sign, what people are weighing in my case is often embarrassment v. potential life-threatening medical issues or death.

        Jaundice is fundamentally different from a lot of other medical things.

        Anything that is an early warning sign of a serious problem should be addressed by someone.

        If you are worried about embarrassment or violation of privacy rights, do take it up the chain of command.

        But, please, for people such as myself, don’t stay silent.

        1. Kelly L.*

          OK, I should clarify that I don’t mean being pestered at work is the worst possible outcome, and I apologize that it came off that serious. Imagine me doing a 90s teen “That is The. Worst.” with an eyeroll. I only meant that it’s horribly annoying to be told 50 different times that, idk, you’re limping or sound congested, both of which are things that have happened.

          1. Autolycus*

            Oh god, sorry. I didn’t mean that to seem so AT YOU.

            It’s fine. Please don’t worry you came off as mean-spirited.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Hm. I kind of feel that if I’m not comfortable talking to Joe about his potential health issue that doesn’t impact me, I definitely don’t have any business talking to anyone else about it, whether that’s intended to be gossip or not, because it has the potential to *become* gossip, if that makes sense.

      1. Autolycus*

        Mentioning a change of color is not talking about the health issue unless you demand to know why.

        “Hey, Joe, did you know you look a little yellow today?” just might save a life.

        It’s not the same as being nosy into someone else’s business.

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          And if you’re talking *to* Joe, then I absolutely agree with you. But there’s a difference between “Joe, are you aware that you’re orange?” and “Hey Jane, have you noticed that Joe is orange today?” And even if said with the best of non-gossipy intentions, the second one just kinda comes across poorly, especially if you’re not comfortable saying the first.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        If you are worried about it becoming gossip, then chose your person wisely. Many times workplaces have that one person who takes in a lot and lets go of very little. People go to that person for advice on difficult topics or they ask the person to help because they think the person has the capability to provide effective help. Typically this person has a rep for not repeating stories.

        I have been on both sides of this one. I have been dragged into stuff and I have dragged other people into things.

    3. CTT*

      Yeah, I wanted to suggest something along those lines, like asking the person’s assistant if they have one or a coworker and couching it as “I don’t want to be the 500th person asking him this”, but that also feels like it could be construed as gossiping?

    4. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      I like the core idea here about having it be filtered through one contact person who can already know if the issue’s been raised or not. I’m not certain a supervisor is the right person to go with; I might lean toward someone’s known close work buddy (if they have one) or assistant (ditto), just to make sure I’m not putting things in a bad place re: power structures.

    5. Oxford Comma*

      While I get that this is the ideal approach, what happens when Joe’s supervisor is out of town and Joe is looking jaundiced or aphasic or his face is suddenly drooping? You really don’t want to wait on that.

      I don’t see anything wrong with going to Joe and asking if he’s feeling okay. Or apologizing for possibly being intrusive asking that question. If Joe asks you to back off or seems offended, you can apologize and walk away, but at least you’ve tried. You’ve been a decent human being.

  8. ellis55*

    At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it is okay to – only once, in a one-on-one setting, mention that you’ve noticed a dramatic and unexpected change change in someone’s (appearance, hygiene, other visible wellness indicators unrelated to weight), ask if they are aware, share briefly that you know it can sometimes but not always indicate that someone is unwell, and move on right away.

    While in this very specific case someone was helped by presenting something over and over, as a group, I think in the vast majority of cases that is not the dynamic, and it’s unwelcome and intrusive, even stigmatizing. Also, the individual hopefully also has non-coworker friends and family as well as all of Google to assess their own wellness. There’s lots of room to do less here.

  9. Augusta Hawkins Elton*

    There are so many commenters who write in who are exhausted by dealing with questions (about health or life issues) and ask for advice about how to handle them, that I think we all have a knee-jerk reaction to spare those people the stress.

    However, if co-workers ask question with an appropriate tone that conveys simple human concern/compassion, and then never ask again once they get an answer, those usually aren’t the people causing the problem. It’s often the rude, repeated or intrusive question-askers that cause most of the trouble.

    And with something like this, when the stakes are so high, I say go ahead and ask.

    1. Augusta Hawkins Elton*

      The exception would be changes in weight. No one can miss a drastic weight change because their clothes will fit differently, and the question is so socially fraught, IMO it should never be asked.

      1. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

        Agreed that it’s fraught to ask about weight change but it can also spur gossip that’s way wrong. A friend on mine lost a lot of weight when her marriage was failing, dramatically enough for people to speculate behind her back that she had cancer. But no one asked about the cancer either.

          1. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

            She is! Divorced, remarried a wonderful man, had a kid, put the weight back on and a bit extra but she don’t care because she’s finally happy. :)

        1. a*

          One of the supervisors in our building had a pretty sudden and dramatic weight loss. Since there are only 30 or so of us here, and we are all pretty familiar with each other, several people asked those who were perceived to be friends of his if he was OK. Our answer was that he had some medical issues that he didn’t want to discuss, but he was doing OK. Once that got around the office, we all watched to see if he might need something else, but basically left him alone. I guess that’s the benefit of working with socially awkward scientists? Once we get our immediate question answered, we can happily go back to (mostly) ignoring each other and doing our jobs.

    2. Autolycus*

      Thank you. Thank you.

      As someone for whom this might be life and death, I can attest that the stakes are that high.

    3. Oh No She Di'int*

      I am glad you said this. My first inclination was to be more on the “mind your own business” side. But then I thought about why I was having that reaction. And you’re exactly right–there are so many stories of over-intrusiveness, that yes, I was beginning that normal concern of one human for another was somehow automatically out of bounds. It is not.

      1. Lissa*

        Me too! Honestly reading too much online has made me want to never ever bring up something that may be personal, because I feel like I’m committing like eight microaggressions just by thinking “Jim looks different today.” I believe I still would in some cases, because I do find there’s a certain tone to the way people speak online that just doesn’t translate to how they actually behave in my experience. But I can see where people get hesitant, and it is not always because they just don’t care and are jerks.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Don’t forget, there’s a huge difference between asking once and being ready to apologize if the person is offended verses asking repeatedly.

    4. Snow globe*

      I also think there is a difference between asking out of nosiness (‘what happened to you!?’) vs. just pointing something out, like you would if they had toilet paper stuck to their shoe.

    5. Washi*

      I agree with this. Noticing a life-threatening illness before the person themselves does is a fairly rare occurrence, whereas based on this site, judgmental busybodies with no boundaries and terrible advice are more common, so it’s tempting to make a blanket rule of “don’t comment on other people’s bodies/health.”

      When really, if you’re a person with a reasonable amount of common sense and tact and a decent relationship with the person, checking in one time is unlikely to be an egregious overstep.

      It kind of reminds me of how I have had male colleagues tell me they like my outfit, and it has been a lovely interaction. But do I want the sexual harassment training video to say “it’s ok to comment on other people’s appearances as long as you’re not being creepy”? Nope.

    6. Kathlynn (Canada)*

      As someone who has to wear PPE (a dust mask) at work, due to her asthma, your second paragraph is spot on. People make so many shitty comments. In times where I have to wear it because of the poor air quality triggering my asthma, I’ve had people literally demand that I remove my mask because it upsets them. (guess who gets told “not going to happen”, then told to leave if they don’t like it). Those comments upset me. And next time the air gets that bad I’m going to my doctor for medical leave. But the comments where people’s tone is “I am actually concerned *for* you” don’t bother me, except situations like when I’ve dealt with 5 jerk in one day, and I’m just tired of people and want to go home (which is on me, not the nice dude)

  10. Purt's Peas*

    I’ve also had the experience of someone bringing up “uhh, hey that’s not normal,” and it turned out I’d had a benign but quite large adenoma for more than five years and had just been ignoring the symptoms.

    In my case, my boyfriend at the time brought it up. If I’d told a coworker, “oh yeah I have these headaches all the time” and they’d said, “that’s not normal!” that would also have been fine.

    So here’s what I think the criteria are for speaking up. I don’t think all of them need to be met. I think you can mention it:

    – if there’s something that pings your “uh oh” sense;

    – if you have a little bit of experience with managing health problems, your own or others’, so that you do know what might be normal and what’s not;

    – if your advice is “see an expert” and you are not offering your own expertise as a solution;

    – if it’s not already recognized as something chronic;

    – if it’s not already being handled (“hey you broke your foot! it’s in a cast! seems wrong to me!”);

    – if it’s really an acute or serious issue that is urgent to handle (jaundice)–this can carry a lot of weight, I think, but is rare.

    1. Purt's Peas*

      I guess I should say, I don’t intend those as hard and fast rules, of course, but criteria to consider. And they already really rely on you knowing the person: it gets a lot iffier if you don’t know the person, and I think that the medical issue has to be more and more urgent the less and less you know the person. Like, it’s fine to ask a stranger who just fell and isn’t quite getting up if they’re ok and they need help; it’s not fine to ask a stranger who looks like they might maybe have this thing your aunt has if they’re ok and need help.

      I just want to keep away from saying it’s NEVER ok! Because it really may be ok, you just have to be considerate and make sure that you’re not stomping over someone’s boundaries.

    2. LizB*

      I think these criteria are great, and would add that your relationship with the coworker is another factor that mediates all of them. If it’s someone you have good rapport with, I think it would be easier/more appropriate to speak up than if it’s someone you barely know, not least because you’re more likely to know if something is chronic or being handled if you have a good relationship with the person already.

    3. fposte*

      Those are some good ones (though I’m not sure where you’re going on the broken foot–if it’s in a cast, that seems like it’s handled). Another data point is if it’s something you’ve undergone. That’s not a universal in–“I gained a ton once too and now I sell Herbalife” is still not acceptable. But I think a co-worker who had also experienced jaundice would be in a particularly good position to say “Joe, I had jaundice once–if that’s what’s going on with you, I know some good local doctors.”

      1. Purt's Peas*

        You’re very right about something you’ve gone through, except for weight-related stuff. And of course it’s a no-go if your proposed solution is bringing someone into your pyramid scheme, haha.

        I was going for something like, the broken foot is very obviously handled, so you don’t need to bring it up :P

      2. I edit everything*

        I think the broken foot example was to show overstepping, what NOT to say, rather than a good time to query.

    4. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      I think these are great criteria to keep in mind. Speaking up isn’t always the right thing to do, and staying silent isn’t always the most helpful thing (as in Joe’s example).

    5. beanie gee*

      I think your last point about it being really acute or serious is key. I wouldn’t have known that looking yellow could be a sign of something serious, but sometimes you just know something serious is happening. There are certainly grey areas, but things like fainting, heart attack symptoms, stroke symptoms would all encourage me to say something.

      1. Eliza*

        Yeah, I faint occasionally and I can’t really blame anyone for being concerned if it happens in front of them. In my case it’s a chronic issue related to low blood pressure and not life-threatening, but a random bystander has no way to know that.

    6. AnotherAlison*

      I would differ on experience managing health problems. If you’re a medical professional and have experience, ok, or if you have personal experience with that specific thing, but not like, “Oh, my husband has eczema and I noticed you have jaundice symptoms.”

      I would also consider who this person has in their life. Perhaps they are someone who lives alone and prefers not to regularly see friends or family. Then I would potentially consider that I might be the only person who could flag this issue for them. I personally live with a spouse and regularly see my mom–both people who are happy to flag anything that’s wrong with me. I don’t need or want it from my coworkers. I realize we don’t all know coworkers well enough to know their social lives, but if you don’t know if they have a partner, maybe they aren’t close enough to comment on their health.

    7. Smithy*

      I also think it’s fair to add to this whether someone has gone through a life change so major that coworkers know.

      Relocating for a job can be stressful. New job pieces aside, moving has never been easy. Additionally, things like getting a doctor, updating ID’s, registering to vote, etc etc. – all of that can end up getting delayed by years just because it’s one more thing to do during a stressful time. Not to mention, in early months of a job, taking time off to see a doctor can feel even more stressful.

      Maybe there’s a coworker who slipped on the stairs, and day 1 has an ace bandage on their foot and is limping, then by day 2 is on crutches. If you also know that coworker is new to a job and maybe new to town – taking some time to ask if they had time to go to a doctor/ER/Urgent Care rather than buying supplies at a drug store could be thoughtful. Ideally this would come from a manager, but dependent on structures – a more tenured colleague saying “hey – take the day off to get that x-rayed – here are some places I might recommend going” could be helpful.

      A few years after I relocated for a job, I was joking around one of my department’s senior leaders that I still had some unpacked boxes from when I moved. She was horrified to hear that and replied that maybe it was worth finding some time in the next week or two I could take as comp time to actually get settled in. Obviously, I’m also terrible about unpacking – but I think sometimes in all of the efforts to not intrude into people’s lives, there’s also not enough acknowledgement about how hard things are like starting a new job or moving and how that can impact overall self care.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think part of the key here is offering something that is actually of value or practicality to the person’s setting. It somehow feels less invasive but it also feels thoughtful. A thinking person’s response can convey a warmth or caring.

        A friend was concerned about staying late at work. Rather than taking that deeper conversation as to why she was worried, I asked her if she had a dog. Well, yes, she did. I said, “Bring your dog to work. They will let you, because other people have done this.” Her face lit right up. I cut right to problem solving mode without diluting her concern or prying.

    8. Quill*

      Yeah, been in a few situations where I have some personal experience with classmates or coworkers who are like “well, this is weird” *holds up very swollen hand* and I’m like “you dislocated your knuckle, dude.” And I’ve felt pretty confident in bringing up an obvious injury and telling them they shouldn’t try to walk it off.

      When it comes to illnesses it can be a little trickier in terms of interpreting the signs and knowing when it’s just a thing a person already has under control.

      Generally I tend to find that my “that’s DEFINITELY not right” sense is fairly well tuned, but overall if you’re more curious than “my spidey senses are tingling about seeing a doctor about that” that’s when you have to step back and ask if you should really ask.

    9. drpuma*

      I like these criteria, and would add as the final step –

      – Trust the person to decide for themselves how to proceed, and accept that they owe you zero follow-up. If you know you wouldn’t be able stop yourself from asking if they went to a doctor, what was the diagnosis, etc, then maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.

    10. Morning reader*

      These are good criteria and I see you’ve added some context for how well you know the person.

      Similarly, my brother was advised to seek medical attention when people who saw him regularly noticed a marked change in his appearance. In his case, it was church, so a more social than professional context. Still, when people are single or live alone, it can be life-saving for others to give a health nudge sometimes. (I recall one study said married people live longer because they have someone else to notice changes like this and encourage medical attention.) My bar for whether to mention something would be lower for a person who lives alone or is new to the area so maybe doesn’t have others to notice these things. I can see how this could be irritating but it would be forgivable in the case of a dangerous medical condition.

    11. Sleve McDichael*

      See, I don’t see a problem with offering sympathy for a foot in a cast. ‘Ouch, broken foot, looks sore! Get better soon!’ as you pass a colleague in the hallway expresses some human sympathy without requiring the person to respond or go deeper if they don’t want. I do think it’s important to make sure it’s something without stigma though. You obviously can’t say ‘Ugh, you’ve gained so much weight so fast, get thin soon.’ But I think it’s rude to ignore unstigmatised visible injuries.

  11. Miss May*

    I try to think what I would want, and honestly, I’d like someone to tell me. I think once, and privately is good enough. For instance, one of my coworkers had ringworm on the back of his neck, and he would have never know unless someone would have told him.

  12. Important Moi*

    I’m always of the opinion that I should be told rather than not be told (about anything ). I’d rather know. I feel that (because one can’t really know) far too many people don’t like uncomfortable conversations to the point of not saying anything. I’m not one of them.

    I also take into account that if something “bad” happens to me as result of indirect or direct inaction (specifically, not informing me), it’s not my responsibility to manage the feelings of whoever opted not to say anything.

    I’m curious to see where the comments will go. on this subject.

  13. Audrey Puffins*

    Could be worth doing the Alison-prescribed classics in a situation like this; go to a higher-up person, ask if they can offer advice, tell them what you’ve noticed, and see what they come back with. It could be a pre-existing medical thing that the higher-ups already know about, in which case they can let you know that it’s nothing to worry or gossip about, or they could (fairly) chastise you for being intrusive but then if they go away and notice it themselves, it may prompt them to have a gentle conversation with the Joe, which may be received better coming from a higher up than from a peer.

    1. Sleve McDichael*

      Ugh I’d rather not have the whole office gossiping about how I’m yellow behind my back. Just tell it to my face please.

  14. She's One Crazy Diamond*

    I have a chronic illness and work with a few people who are chronically ill. If it’s someone you have a friendlier professional relationship with, it’s okay to genuinely ask if they’re feeling okay, but if they insist they are, drop it.

  15. Amethystmoon*

    I personally would go with unless you’re a good friend, don’t mention it. They likely already know. If you’re a good friend, you can tell them when you’re not around other people.

    1. Oxford Comma*

      Well, Joe didn’t know. I’ve heard of people who were aphasic who had no idea. Women often have different heart attack symptoms than men and often have no idea.

      That’s the point. They don’t know.

      There’s a big distinction between coming up to someone and insistently telling them how acai berries cured their migraines or looking at a coworker whose color is draining out of their face in a meeting and asking quietly if they’re okay and possibly suggesting a doctor.

  16. ACDC*

    I’ve seen this play out really well once in my life. We were at a team lunch, and one team member was noticeably guzzling lemonade (think 7-8 glasses during the course of the lunch) and his eyes were very yellow. A different team member pulled him aside and said, “Are you doing ok? My husband had the same symptoms when he first developed diabetes, you may want to go see someone.” (this is a paraphrased and brief version of what was said) He went to the doctor the next day and turns out he was diabetic and didn’t know it.

    So I think the most important take away here was that he wasn’t publicly called out for these things, the coworker spoke to him privately. Also the tone and pretense matters too.

    1. ACDC*

      I had another thought on this. If it were a coworker that I didn’t know very well but was concerned about their health. I would seek out someone that knew them a lot better than I, and say “Hey do you know if Fergus is OK? I noticed X or Y about him but I don’t know him well enough to talk to him about it.” Then hopefully that person can have the conversation with Fergus, unless they already know what’s going on!

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, I’ve recently had a few people ask me about someone else’s health because I am closer to her than they are and they didn’t want to pry. That seems fine to me!

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I saw something similar play out too. A coworker had been ill with something and mentioned an annoying symptom to a co-worker, the co-worker said, “Not normal, you really ought to go to a doctor, PLEASE go to the doctor” and the coworker turned out to be seriously, transplant-level ill. I can’t imagine sitting back and seeing something like that and saying nothing, though one does have to tread properly if not carefully.

    3. Medico*

      Yep, agreeing with this. I’m an ambulance officer and a teacher, so I’m a bit of a sticky beak in the ‘just making sure you’re alright’ department. There’s no harm in a friendly, ‘ Hey, are you ok?’ and as several people have pointed out they might not have noticed something about themselves.

  17. learnedthehardway*

    I think that a few things would have to be factors before it would be appropriate to ask a colleague about their health.

    a) you genuinely believe they are in danger and urgently need to see a doctor. Not – they might need to lose weight, or I have this awesome cure for their cancer (that you already know about). The OP’s situation would qualify – it’s absolutely not normal for someone to be bright yellow.

    b) you are respecting their privacy – ie. not announcing your deep concern to the whole office, but getting them to have a closed door conversation with you. Saying, “Joe, can I talk to you in your office for a minute” is good. Saying “OMG Joe, you look terrible” in front of the whole staff is bad.

    c) you can respect that the person may or may not act on your expression of genuine concern. They might not, and if not, you have to realize that you’re not their Mom and can’t (and shouldn’t) keep bringing up the issue.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yes, the urgency of it makes a difference. I’ve seen people defend some seriously rude weight criticism because “I’m just concerrrrned for your heaaaallllth!” But both the effects of weight on health and the process of weight loss are a slow, long-term thing, and we all know what the standard advice is. It’s unlikely that a fat person doesn’t know they’re fat, or that it’s going to become an emergency in the specific moment that you’re talking to them.

      But I have a friend who’s a college professor and once pointed out to a student that an injury she had was starting to radiate black lines up her arm, and urged her to leave class and go to the ER, and it ended up being a very good thing she did.

      1. Sleve McDichael*

        I feel like concern trolling weight is something that is making everyone afraid to mention all other health issues. There is so much difference between ‘You’re overweight, did you knooooooooow?’ and ‘You’re turning pretty red, do you want some sunscreen?’ or ‘You’re yellow with jaundice this morning, are you ok?’ or ‘ouch that looks like a sore bruise, get better soon!’.

    2. MsSolo*

      I do feel like jaundice is a weird one, because it can be a symptom of imminent organ failure – go straight to hospital, do not pass go, do not collect $200 – but it can also be a symptom of a health issue the individual is currently managing. I think it does warrant one person, maybe the supervisor, checking in to establish if this is new and abrupt or something the employee has already spoken to a medical professional about, and providing support accordingly.

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        Yes! Especially “bright yellow” jaundice. A close friend in college came down with a case of mono so bad it infected her liver, she had to be hospitalized for some days and was out for months afterward on bed rest per doctor’s orders. You know what color she was? Faintly yellow. I’d offer to drive someone to the ER myself if they showed up bright yellow. That’s the color of imminent organ failure.

      1. fposte*

        It is kind of hilarious that the public blurt is exactly what happened in this case and it worked out great.

      1. Morning Flowers*

        I agree, urgency is a key point, whether you’re dealing with friends or strangers.

        My sister was once arriving at class and heard a classmate describe to her friend what was obviously huge amounts of blood in her stool. From the classmate’s words, she didn’t know this could be a symptom of life-threatening bowel perforations or other serious, act-now GI problems. My sister stepped into the conversation and said she should leave class now and go see the campus doctor. The classmate hesitated, and my sister said, if you don’t go, I’m going to take you by the arm and pull you there. My sister had no intention of actually forcing her (and I don’t recommend telling a work colleague you’re going to drag them anywhere), and her tone made that clear — it’s just that they were both young, and it was the fastest way my sister could communicate how serious she thought the matter was. Her classmate went to the doctor, and later thanked my sister for possibly saving her life!

    3. TootsNYC*

      to ask a colleague about their health.

      Here is one thing that I think is important.
      When my colleague did this to me, he didn’t ask about my health.
      He TOLD me that he thought my coughing was too much for just normal allergies, and that he thought it was a burden for me, and that he thought it would be good for me to see a doctor if I hadn’t.

      He didn’t ASK why I was coughing; he didn’t ask what the cause of my cough was. Sure, literally he asked, “have you seen a doctor for that cough?” but that was more of an intro than a direct request for detailed medical information.

      He provided information and perspective that I might have missed.

      “I’ve noticed you aren’t extending your arm all the way over your head when you reach for the stuff on the top shelf. Is that sort of new? Maybe you should see a physical therapist, because that’s not really normal, and maybe exercises can help.”

      1. Mel (Cow Whisperer)*

        I had a similar convo with a coworker not long ago.

        She had had a cold that was dragging on and had mentioned that she had seen a doctor for it. 10 days or more later, she had a nagging cough. I asked her if her doctor had screened her for asthma when she had been in for the cold because that’s one of the ways that asthma can show up – because that’s how I got my asthma diagnosis years ago.

        My tone was conversational and informational – and I think I said “I might be reading way too much into it because it reminds me of me”.

        And then I let her make her own decisions.

    4. Quill*

      Yeah, also it helps to have… a realistic idea of what is and is not real medicine.

      If someone asked, for example, about my intermittent limp and wouldn’t let it go, my level of annoyance would increase with the ridiculousness of any solution they proposed. “Ok if you need an advil I have one in my purse,” is better than “Here’s my chiropractor’s office number!” which is still better than “oh, you should do an essential oil massage, my cousin sells…”

  18. A Poster Has No Name*

    This one, I think, depends on the coworker. If you have a coworker like Joe, who you know tends to be kind of oblivious or “bad” about life skills, maybe throw out a question and see what happens.

    If you have a coworker who you know is more on the ball about such things, then I think I’d be more hesitant to say anything, assuming they’ve got this (if they’re the type who normally would).

    I might also throw a discrete question to other coworkers and see if anyone knows or has asked. Not necessarily to gossip, but to see if a) it’s an issue that’s known so you don’t end up asking someone who has probably already answered the questions a bunch of times or b) it is something new and others are concerned so it might be better to have someone, maybe someone closer to the coworker, express concern. But that can get weird, too, if you find out a bunch of coworkers have been talking about your medical condition.

    There’s no sure answer, but I would personally rather risk irritating a coworker than losing a coworker, so if it can be handled respectfully, I would err on the side of asking or expressing concern than staying silent.

  19. Shira*

    Maybe if you preface it with an acknowledgment that you may be overstepping, e.g. “feel free to tell me to mind my own business, but…”
    There probably isn’t a single one-size-fits-all approach that will never upset anyone, though. It’s tough.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      I like this wording combined with some of the other suggestions: namely that it’d be a polite private one-time conversation where you simply say you’ve noticed (dramatic) changes (that happened fairly quickly but are not weight gain) and were wondering if they’re okay.

      And then navigate from there based on their reply/tone/etc.

      If they say something to the extent of “what? I’m totally fine!” then I wouldn’t try to explain myself further, I’d just let the conversation end (enthusiastic “okay, I won’t mention it again then! I’m glad you’re good!”) and then never mention it again.

    2. hbc*

      I definitely think that there needs to be an explanation or pre-apology as you note, just given how likely it is that you’re essentially telling someone “I notice how awful you look” or “You aren’t hiding your disability as well as you think.” That’s not anyone’s intention, of course–it can be done out of love and concern and still be that message if Joe had hoped no one noticed it’s a bad liver day.

      The person with the occasional hand tremor is going to feel a lot better if you noticed because you have a relative with Parkinson’s, rather than feeling like it’s a big distraction that everyone has seen.

  20. CatCat*

    A bit part of this is the relationship you have with the person. One of the things that struck me here was that it was a colleague from the Joe’s former office that brought it up. It’s a lot harder for the new colleagues to navigate this. They don’t really know Joe, what is normal for Joe, and maybe don’t have any kind of capital with him.

    If one of my immediate colleagues, who I see and talk to regularly and have good rapport with, came in looking unwell, I would inquire about it. I would know that appearing unwell is new and not something that was normal for them, and they would (hopefully) know that I was coming from a good place of caring and concern for them.

    If someone I rarely saw from another office with whom I’m just acquainted looked unwell, I don’t think I would have said anything. I just wouldn’t know enough about them to feel like I should ask after their health. For all I know, that is normal for them and they are dealing with it and an inquiry from someone they don’t know would seem more intrusive.

    I hope that makes sense.

  21. writerbecc*

    I think a lot of this depends on the office culture, too. For whatever reason, most of the folks on my team have some kind of chronic condition, and we’re all generally pretty open about that sort of thing. If we noticed someone turning yellow, we’d mention it and ask if they were feeling all right. But we’re a fairly small team, our manager is relaxed (& has his own health issues), and so it’s the kind of environment where if someone turned yellow or suddenly looked terrible, we’d bring it up. The last place I worked, we wouldn’t have, I don’t think. No one wanted to admit to health issues in that office and taking sick time was…frowned upon.

    As someone with chronic illnesses, I usually don’t want people commenting on my health unless I’ve invited them to do so or unless something’s seriously wrong I haven’t noticed. But if I turned bright yellow all of a sudden I’d expect a few comments out of concern from my co-workers.

    1. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

      I think team culture plays a lot into it. My team has a pretty open culture where we share a lot about our personal lives and I know that I could pull any of them aside and gently say something looks wrong and it would be fine. Heck, one of our managers figured out that a coworker’s SPOUSE had shingles. She mentioned it to the coworker and the coworker sent the spouse to the Dr. that day and lo and behold – shingles. But, I would have a hard time doing/saying that to anyone outside of my immediate team unless I knew them well.

  22. PB & Jelly*

    I think if you notice a change then its OK to say something privately(as in not in the lunchroom and not in a group of people). With the caveat that when you say something you are saying hey I noticed you are a dark shade of yellow today or whatever and its different than it was last week. I don’t want to intrude and you don’t need to tell me anything, I was just a little worried and wanted to say something to you privately. Then you leave it alone and wait for them to respond to you or you drop it.

  23. lost academic*

    To me it’s a level of severity – the middle grey area is the hardest. This case is really a no brainer. You have to be a reasonable human being even at work – you can’t just act like nothing you’d ever see should ever be brought up because it’s not your business. If it turns out a colleague’s life could have been saved but you saw something you knew to be a crisis and actively chose not to say anything, you might be failing as a human being.

  24. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Setting and tone are key! Make sure to bring any concerns up privately and with a tone of complete concern for wellbeing, not “everyone is talking about this”. And a good preface can be, “Please tell me to shut up if this is not news to you”.
    A friend noticed an acquaintance’s husband’s hands and nose had suddenly started growing, and pulled the couple aside to let them know such growth in some cases can have a distinct connection to dangerous heart enlargement. The couple was furious at her interference, but a month later decided to get it checked out, and sure enough, the husband was diagnosed and his life was spared.

  25. Amber Rose*

    Well, but in this case you have some specific knowledge about this person: That he’s pretty bad at taking care of himself.

    I think in most scenarios where we are adults working with other adults who we know to be pretty competent, it’s better to not speak up and trust that they can manage their health. But if you know someone is the type to blatantly ignore their health or is kind of clueless, AND you’re on reasonably friendly terms with them, it’s fine to say “whoah, you should see a doctor, that is not normal.”

  26. Antennapedia*

    I’ve actually had this happen with a colleague, except it was “clubbing” of his fingers, which had gotten progressively worse over a span of a few months. About a week after I decided I was going to say something about it (he was a smoker, and clubbing of the fingers is a serious sign of reduced peripheral oxygenation) he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Later his widow said “you know how his fingers looked strange? apparently that’s a sign of lung cancer! I had no idea…” and I FELT HORRIBLE.

    Which isn’t helpful, I know, but this situation happens more often than you think, especially in fields where folks have scientific and medical training.

  27. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    To be clear, OP, you did discuss it with coworker:
    “I asked him if he was feeling alright and he said he was a little tired but otherwise okay.”
    You then accepted his answer. You question I guess is, “should I have challenged him on this? Should I have explained why I asked and push him more?”
    The answer is no.
    I really think if you had gone the route of the previous coworker without having the relationship that he had with the previous coworker, the whole situation would have turned into a Thing, whether he was really sick or not.

    1. WellRed*

      I think OP could have been more specific then to ask if he was feeling OK. I mean, I get she was being polite, but in this case, I think saying “your skin is really yellow all of a sudden, that can be a sign of jaundice,” might have had more of an effect.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        I think specificity is important. Are you feeling ok and how are you doing can be taken so many ways that if you are going to broach this with someone, you really need to specify WHY you are crossing that boundary.

        1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          WellRed and Cake. This is a good point. I have rethought my original comment. Yes, OP did ask, but ask what exactly? When I am asked this by a coworker, I work from the perspective of small talk. They are acknowledging me, a version of hello. If someone said, “how are you? (I even see that used the word said, not ask) “how are you?” I’d say fine thanks, you?” If someone said, “Hi, are you feeling OK?” I would say, “yes, fine thanks. Maybe a little tired, thanks.” I would then think that I should make it less obvious at work that I’m tired. I wouldn’t think, oh, I must look sick, is that why s/he said that?

        2. Quill*

          Yeah, especially when a symptom could be caused by multiple things – someone might be like “oh, you’re asking because i look tired, ugh insomnia” when that’s not at all what you were about. Please do state the reason for your concern.

  28. bunniferous*

    This is so case by case but I think if you have relational standing with the person, bring it up. But be polite about it. If the choice is between rude and your coworker dying, a little rudeness can be forgiven.

  29. mcfizzle*

    If the change is so dramatic that people are talking about it (that’s a another debate about gossiping) then I’d recommend appointing one person to ask / have that conversation. That way, the person isn’t accosted by everyone in the office, but there is a way to express concern.

    This is not perfect as an approach, but as someone with medical training, I’d rather say something (gently, carefully) and profusely apologize (if necessary) than not say anything.

  30. Relatable*

    I can somewhat relate to this (from Joe’s perspective)! To make a long story short, I pushed myself too hard at a cycling class and my boss came to me and expressed concern about my condition. I was super sore and my legs were incredibly swollen, and I was in so much pain I could barely walk. I ended up going to urgent care at the suggestion of my boss and was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis. I was hospitalized for a week! It’s good I went in when I did because rhabdo can cause major damage, such as kidney failure.

    I was still somewhat new to my job and it turns out a coworker is the one who noticed my symptoms, and she went to my boss. I worked in sports so rhabdo was a little better known in our industry than it might have been elsewhere. I get at the time my coworker didn’t feel comfortable saying something directly to me, but I so appreciate she did something that encouraged me to get the care I needed.

    1. Antennapedia*

      Hello, yes, hi, I actually had this happen last weekend except it was mild rhabdo and CELLULITIS in both arms. It is terrible and I feel like the poster child for “you should not be this swollen or in pain, go to the doctor!”

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I’m glad it worked out for you, but I would be annoyed if my coworkers commented on this. I’m just an over 40 athlete who can’t walk from things that don’t hurt a 35 year old, heck didn’t hurt me two months ago. Every day is a new training adventure. I’ve been hobbling around all this week, and I don’t need to be reminded of my pain. (No rhabdo here now, but my trainer once thought I had it because of a swollen upper arm. I’m aware!)

      1. JerryLarryTerryGarry*

        But one question, acceptance of your assurance that you’re ok, moving on (albeit in a hobbling fashion) seems fine to me, even if you’re slightly annoyed.

  31. Jaybeetee*

    I would probably assume that my colleague would have themselves noticed the Extremely Noticeable Medical Symptom, and that they were already dealing with it as they saw fit. I would never guess someone “hadn’t noticed” their own jaundice. I would also file it under “never comment on a woman’s pregnancy unless she’s already mentioned it or giving birth in front of you”.

    Now, for more subtle symptoms, I might gently say something. An example I can think of was a woman who posted a pic of her baby to a mommy group, and one of the other users noticed an issue with one of the baby’s eyes that could be possibly indicative of cancer. User sent mom a kind, polite, non-alarmist message along the lines of “Hey, I’m not trying to scare you but such-and-such eye thing could be serious and you should get your baby checked”. It turned out it was cancer, but caught early enough that baby recovered. Same goes if someone’s behaviour/functioning seems way off from usual.

    LW, I understand this incident spooked you, but I don’t think you did anything wrong here. Of course you assumed he already knew there was a problem. Frankly, I find it nearly as alarming that he somehow didn’t notice.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      Certain things can creep up on a person. I was having a reaction to a medication but my husband and I saw me everyday and since it happened gradually neither of us noticed it was as bad as it was. After about a month my mom came to see us and her mouth dropped open as soon as she saw me and that is when we realized something was wrong.

  32. Ms. Green Jeans*

    My DH turned yellow and did not take it seriously until I actually got angry with him. If he hadn’t gone to the doctor just appease me that same day, he would not have lived through the week. His initial diagnosis of pneumonia had been wrong, and we found out the next day that his heart had a superbug; he went into surgery immediately. I think after that experience, I would find a way to gently ask about a coworker’s drastic change of appearance, even if it means potentially offending them.

  33. Melissa84*

    I think if it’s sudden, or really out of the ordinary, it’s ok to inquire in a general manner. Depending on the response, you can drop it if that’s appropriate. If they seem aware of the issue, then let it go. But if they say “I’m yellow, what do you mean?” then someone can take that cue to gently steer them towards medical care.

    My co-worker appeared to be feeling unwell, and had turned a (frankly terrifying) odd shade of greenish-grey. Several of us (independently) had said “are you feeling ok, you look like you don’t feel good”. We convinced her to go to the Dr, who sent her straight to the hospital for the heart attack she was having. Her boss insisted that she return to work the day after she was released and with the weekend to make up her work. The toxic environment might have contributed a little.

  34. Quinalla*

    I think for something so obvious like this example, you bring it up and I agree bring it up in private with the person. And yes, adjust for your audience. If you know the person to be fairly non-observant, you might bring up slightly less obvious things with them.

    For other things, I’d probably let them bring it up and then comment if they do. Erring on the side of leaving it alone until the other person brings it up is best at work. And I also agree, never bring up weight issues at work. People know when their weight has changed, it isn’t something you can miss with clothes fitting differently and so on, so there is no reason to bring that up! Also, never bring up if you think someone might be pregnant, even if it is 100% obvious, let them bring it up.

  35. Half-Caf Latte*

    This one is hard for me to separate out my clinical knowledge. Highlighter-yellow is an immediate workup kind of thing, and almost certain inpatient admission for initial workup. So to me, if Joe’s been at work every day, it’s obvious he almost certainly hasn’t gotten this looked at. I wouldn’t expect laypeople to know this, though.

    With sudden acute onset of liver failure, progression to major cognitive impairment would occur rapidly, at which point someone at work would have to address it.

  36. Em*

    I’d tell them.
    – Privately. Pull them aside and let them know what pinged your uh-oh sensors.
    – Compassionately. Don’t phrase it as “oh my God, what is wrong with your face??” But “Your skin is very yellow all of a sudden, have you noticed?”
    – Only if you know them well enough to make small talk.
    – Only if it’s something not already being treated (if they have a cast, brace, or crutch then they know).
    – Only if you found out about it outside of the restroom. (“Your pee smells like you could be diabetic” is a nonstarter)
    – Only if you are qualified to comment. The jaundice one is something anyone could notice, but in general don’t comment on someone’s neck mass unless you can say “Hey, my sister had hyperthyroid and she had a lump like that”.
    – Only if you are recommending a medical professional. Please don’t tell your coworkers about your great essential oil for arm lumps, or colloidal silver remedies and the like.
    – Only body symptoms. Don’t speculate about a coworkers mental health to them.
    – PRIVATELY. Don’t gossip with other coworkers about what someone might have.

    1. Purt's Peas*

      I think those are super spot on. Especially your “no restroom symptoms” and “no mental health” items–there’s no coworker relationship on earth that’s close enough for that kind of thing.

      1. fposte*

        Though I’ve had exceptions even to that on the restroom symptoms–I broke that glass wall when I heard a very close colleague seriously barfing, and when she came out I suggested I give her a ride home (my car is old :-)).

      2. James*

        I’d disagree about the mental health prohibition. Burnout is a real thing, and often the person suffering from it is the last to notice. It has to be approached delicately (in most cases), but it’s something folks should discuss.

        And I do have coworkers close enough that they can comment on my mental state. When you’re in a regular D&D game you get to say things that may not be appropriate in an office context. Same thing goes with other shared hobbies. I’ve known coworkers who played basketball together, and would occasionally say things like “We’re playing a game tonight, you need it.”

        I get what you’re saying, and as a general rule I would agree; I’m just saying that there are some exceptions.

        1. Purt’s Peas*

          You’re probably right. The specific example I had in mind was a dear friend & coworker, and the thing I’d flag for him is a possible attention disorder—and that would probably be inappropriate imo. Different for something like burnout or depression.

        2. Yamikuronue*

          To be fair, for burnout, the boss should be doing regular 1:1s where they ask things like “how are you handling your workload”. That seems to be the right place to bring up “You seem to be burning out”, rather than having a coworker who can do nothing to impact your workload or stress levels bring it up.

          But below some people talked about sudden loss of short-term memory or working memory, and that (while a mental symptom) is more the thing that I think a coworker could bring up, because that’s more of a “this is worrying, please see a doctor” issue than a “take some time off” issue.

          1. James*

            The company I work for had a matrix management style for a long time, and our official boss really had little to do with our careers unless they happened to be involved in projects we were on. I know people who had “bosses” that only ever interacted with them at year-end evaluations, and even then only via one or two emails. For half my career my official boss only had a vague notion of what state I was in; so long as I was billable and no one was complaining about my performance, my workload was my problem.

            I don’t want to make it all seem bad. The reality is that folks quickly found groups to work with routinely, and eventually were shifted so that their workload matched their de jure status in the company. But it means that the concept of “boss” gets hazy. I was on a phone call today with my official boss, where I was assigning her tasks because her role is under my supervision in a specific project.

            That’s changed a lot, but many offices still retain the old mentality that we’re on our own career-wise. This includes things like burnout. Usually our coworkers are the ones to notice. At least in my situation, if it got bad enough that my boss noticed, it would mean that I’ve made serious, job-threatening errors.

        3. Kathlynn (Canada)*

          This, I started a new med for ADHD. It gave me symptoms very close to Bipolar, among other things. I didn’t realize it for over a month. (The med I was on is known to react badly in people who also have anxiety. Neither my doctor or pharmacist or the medical pamphlet with the side-effect information on it told me this. I had to google it after the fact.)

        4. Arts Akimbo*

          “Burnout is a real thing, and often the person suffering from it is the last to notice. It has to be approached delicately”

          Too true, that! In grad school I lost a friend when like the third time she well-meaningly asked me “Arts, are you feeling ok? You seem like you’re not,” I snapped back “WHY does everyone keep asking me if I’m ok? I’m FINE!” …Which, I was totally not, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I just didn’t know it yet. But our friendship never recovered from my snapping at her, which I feel badly about to this day, especially considering she was right and I was being an idiot!

          So, yes totally, not noticing your own burnout is definitely a thing, and approaching a person with burnout might lead to an unjust head-biting-off. (Still so ashamed!)

  37. Campfire Raccoon*

    This was an obvious sign of a severe illness.

    We are not automatons, we are people. Showing concern for others – or exhibiting basic observational skills – is normal. A work environment is its own little community, albeit a professional one. We don’t put away our humanity when we clock in, so asking about a visible change in appearance isn’t inherently nosy or unprofessional.

    I agree that this is something that should be approached with care, in a private setting, but I don’t want to work somewhere where I can’t express concern when someone’s organs are obviously shutting down.

    1. alwaysbekind*

      Exactly this ^^. While I don’t promote uncalled for intrusiveness, I think it’s basic human decency to mention something that’s potentially serious, as long as it’s done privately in a compassionate way. It’s sad when we can’t show concern for others because we risk offending someone.

  38. These Old Wings*

    My mom does this all the time – friends, colleagues, strangers. But she is a Nurse Practitioner so I think her opinion that someone might want to get something checked out holds more weight. I remember one time she bought a car and mentioned a lump to the salesman. She later found through service visits that it was thyroid cancer and he was very appreciative. But my mom also has a personality where she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t say something.

    1. Ellie Mayhem*

      At a previous job, a colleague’s doctor husband stopped in to bring her something. He saw a pregnant coworker and told her to go to the ER immediately. Fortunately she did and was diagnosed with preeclampsia. She and her baby survived, but if she’d waited the outcome would likely have been worse. The coworker’s husband said that even though her symptoms weren’t noticeable to those not in the medical field, he’d seen enough cases to recognize it.

    2. Quill*

      my mom’s also a notorious diagnoser (our family physician usually asks any of the rest of us what she diagnosed so he can check that first) but she’s an elementary school teacher. So usually she’s telling parents “Hey, your kid has a flush and a sore throat, they may have strep” or “You may want to have Tommy tested for ADHD, he’s having a lot of difficulty concentrating even when he’s trying to” or “Ma’am, that’s not allergies. That’s pinkeye.”

    3. Nita*

      I had a similar thing happen once, and I’m so grateful that the person spoke up. She had a semi-medical background, but she was looking at my baby, not me, and could have chosen to mind her own business when I started venting about how I can’t eat anything any more and the poor kid never gets enough milk. She did speak up, and I was able to get the problem sorted out very quickly. I still had nasty health consequences, but not nearly as bad as if I’d been left to figure this out on my own. I’m pretty sure that if I’d finally realized something is seriously off and gone to my regular doctor, she wouldn’t have diagnosed the problem – it was a little obscure.

  39. B*

    Ooooh, this is a tough one. Nearly the exact same thing happened to me a few years ago. Jaundice is a thing where, believe it or not, when it comes gradually, you may not notice – even if you don’t live in a dark apartment like Joe. In my case, it was someone on my swim team who told me I had acquired a yellow hue, and boy am I grateful she did. I went to the doctor the next day, who immediately sent me to hospital. It turned out I had autoimmune haemolytic anaemia, where your immune system slowly destroys your red blood cells because it thinks they’re The Enemy. Good thing they caught it when they did! I had noticed I wasn’t feeling my best, but put it down to the after effects of the flu I’d had a few weeks earlier (which caused the whole mess in the first place, by sending my immune system into overdrive).
    I am with the people who say if you’re close enough to the person and able to broach it in a private, one-on-one setting, tell them. And let it go if they don’t want to talk about it/change the subject/give off an “I’m not comfortable with this situation” vibe.

    1. an small owl*

      This is the instance in which it would be an issue for me – I had thyroid cancer and it’s the kind of thing I might notice in a coworker/colleague. Of course, it could be a goiter or some other issue, and I doubt I’d say anything. And having been on the receiving end of unsolicited “you should get that looked at!” advice, I don’t want to be that person.

      (OTOH, I’ve definitely had people with the same kind of scar be like “!!! Thyroid!!” and then we talk about why we had thyroidectomies and how daily meds are a PITA, etc etc.

  40. phira*

    I think in this case, I would have done something along the lines of spoken to Joe privately, made it clear that it wasn’t a critique of his appearance, and acknowledged that he might already be aware of it but that I just wanted to check in.

  41. Impska*

    Recently had an awkward situation where an employee’s memory loss was making her unable to do her job. We had to let her go. She cried and said she didn’t understand why she was sucking so bad at the job recently. I guess I could have said, “Ok, well, good luck with that.” Instead, I opted to kindly tell her that we had noticed some significant memory problems, including multiple incidents where she had forgotten conversations, instructions, and basic tasks. I encouraged her to make an appointment with the doctor and to make sure to tell them that she had lost her job due to memory issues so that they understood the seriousness of it.

    A couple of days later, she told me that several of her friends and her husband had all admitted that they, too, had noticed a problem and had just not said anything.

    1. Close Bracket*

      Holy crap, you didn’t say anything about the memory loss until you let her go? Why in Sam Hill not?

      1. Roja*

        Yeah, that seems… harsh. I hope there are other factors we don’t know about that make that a more logical choice.

        But yikes, if my memory deteriorated quickly, I would sure hope my boss would check in with me and let me get care before summarily firing me!

      2. CoffeeCup*

        Yeah, that seems like something that should have been brought up way sooner. I’m actually having a similar circumstance with a contractor I work closely with.

        Over the past few months they have been more forgetful, I’m reminding them of routine things and occasionally they seem to have moments of confusion. I haven’t spoken up because it’s not impacting their performance, it’s just requiring a bit more back and forth than normal (and it’s not excessive) and I don’t know if I should bring it up at all.

    2. Impska*

      Unfortunately, it’s a small business, and if she’s not able to perform basic job functions, there’s not a lot we can do. We can’t keep paying her for nothing. She did not lose her health insurance (which is provided by another source).

      She was on a PIP. We didn’t realize that one of the reasons for her poor performance may have been memory problems until very recently, but time had basically run out on us being able to continue forward without someone performing her job function.

      I’m not a doctor, and I can’t diagnose what is wrong with an employee, medically. Personally, I felt it was kind to let her know that I suspected something was medically wrong, as opposed to her assumption that she was simply incompetent.

      I’m sorry it hurts peoples’ feelings, but employment isn’t charity. You’re hired for a job because it’s necessary (generally). You’re paid to do that job. When you can’t do the job… someone else has to. Your employer can’t keep paying you for non-performance, or worse, really bad performance that has consequences.

      1. Lisa*

        Nobody’s feelings are hurt, nobody thinks employment is charity – those are strawman arguments. Your dismissive tone makes you sound like a bad employer though. It’s in your interest to support employees and to keep your turnover low. I mean, you read this blog, right?

        Surely what you meant is that you didn’t realize it might be medical until she was almost out the door, and that if you had noticed sooner, you’d have supported her.

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        But once you realized that it could be a medical problem, why not say something and give her a chance to seek treatment? If her missing things is potentially a safety issue, even offering unpaid leave would have been kinder than firing her.

  42. I'm A Little Teapot*

    I’ve had health things pointed out to me before, some I knew about and some I didn’t. As long as the person who said it was clearly coming from a place of kindness and wasn’t trying to pry, I don’t generally mind.

    “Not sure if you were aware, but your eye is really red. Hope everything is ok.” Results: pink eye(!) and I went home early and stayed home until no longer contagious; I pulled out the eye drops because the dry eye had gotten worse; cheerful acknowledgement of a problem that was being handled.
    “You ok? You looked like you were limping a bit” Results: yep my foot fell asleep and it’s still waking up; recovering from a muscle cramp/minor injury and I’m still walking funny.
    “You seem tired, everything ok” Results: everything from allergy related issues to full on emotional breakdown to the cat is sick and woke me up several times. Be careful with tired.

    But also know your listener. If someone is known to be private, dial it back. I’m generally pretty open, and I really appreciated the person who alerted me to the pink eye. Still not sure how I got it.

    1. LizB*

      Also be careful with tired if the person you’re asking usually wears makeup – they may have just decided to not wear it today, and it’s frustrating to be told your normal face looks soooooo tired and sick!

    2. hbc*

      I think “tired” isn’t good enough on its own. Yeah, I’m not getting enough sleep, thanks for pointing out that it shows. I’ll never forget the guy who came by when he was feeling under the weather and said, “You look like I feel!” Dude, I felt fine until you showed up and ran your mouth.

      1. Lissa*

        Ha, I once said that if someone says I look tired/sick when I feel fine, I react like “grr thanks for telling me I look AWFUL!” but then if I actually am tired/sick I’m like “omg thank you for caring!!!” Obviously a slight oversimplification! But yeah, commenting on tiredness can be iffy, especially since most people seem to be tired…

    3. Emilia Bedelia*

      I think your point about pink eye is also a consideration – is the (potential) ailment contagious, and if so, is there potentially an impact on anyone else? Of course this doesn’t apply to things like jaundice, but we all know people that come to work sick for whatever reason – I think if the person has a noticeable symptom of a condition that could potentially be contagious (eg, sneezing/coughing/vomiting, or something like pinkeye or a rash), it’s reasonable to say something just to confirm whether others should take their own precautions. Someone who is vomiting because they ate something that didn’t agree with them vs. someone who is ill from the flu are pretty different. Even if they didn’t go into detail about what the condition is, I’d react differently to a coworker who said “Don’t worry, this is normal for me and I’m handling it – it’s not a contagious illness” vs “I don’t know what’s wrong, I’ve just been feeling awful for the past few days”.

      A few years ago, I started using a strong prescription retinoid that made my skin, especially around my eyes, intensely red and sensitive (which looked almost like pinkeye). I got several polite, quiet inquiries about whether I was feeling okay, and when I reassured the askers that it was a normal reaction to a new skincare thing, a few mentioned that they wanted to make sure it wasn’t pinkeye, since that can be easily passed around and not everyone knows what it is. I definitely understand why people would want to protect themselves if a coworker seems to be ill but doesn’t know what is wrong.

  43. nuqotw*

    I think when in doubt, you have to say something, especially for something like jaundice which can come on slowly and be less noticeable to the person with jaundice than to onlookers. I’d rather be embarrassed (on either side of this) than the alternative. I had a student come to class once; he looked sick, head on the desk, etc. He said he didn’t think he was that sick, but he went to the doctor instead of class and had a pretty significant sinus infection.

  44. Avangelis*

    “What’s wrong with your face” = rude. Any statement made like this to a person is plain rude. You don’t approach people that way when you are concerned about them.

    If the approach was not rude I would not mind. But the person who made that statement is a jerk. I would be mortified.

    1. Campfire Raccoon*

      What? That’s my siblings and I greet each other. Now that I’m thinking about it, I get various permutations from my friends and other family.

      The person who said it was a colleague who’d known them for years. OP doesn’t say they were close friends, but I imagine there was a level of familiarity there that gives the speaker some leeway when shocked/concerned for the person’s life.

      1. James*

        The formal name for this sort of thing is counter-signaling. Psychologically speaking, it’s used to demonstrate that your friendship is strong enough that you can flaunt social norms (which are generally in place to minimize friction in daily interactions with strangers and people we don’t like).

        1. Campfire Raccoon*

          This was an attempt at opening with a funny aside to lessen the impact of my strong disagreement with Avangelis’ statement. I’m aware that societal norms are different between friends and strangers – and that Joe’s lack of tact implied a general familiarity/possible friendship.

          Which makes me now think you’re being funny with !science! and I’ve fallen down the spiraling rabbit hole of me missing your joke in defending my joke. Send help and coffee.

          1. Blueberry*

            I didn’t get the impression James was critiquing you, just stating a relevant fact (and hey, thank you James, I was just trying to find that term).

            *adds a big cup of coffee to this comment before sending it*

          2. James*

            I didn’t intend it to come off as critiquing you, and I apologize if my tone conveyed that I was. :) I was mostly just geeking out about the concept. One of my closest colleagues and I have that sort of relationship, and knowing that term helped me explain it to my manager during an annual review.

            I will gladly contribute to your caffeine addiction! :D (I’m on cup….3? I think?)

    2. Brett*

      Strangely enough, I had that exact situation happen with a co-worker in the middle of a meeting.
      Except it was more like “What’s wrong with your face!”
      It wasn’t rude. He had just, that minute, had sudden onset of Bell’s Palsy, which fortunately was not a stroke.

      He did have to endure weeks of people asking about his face after that, but he did not mind much. For him, he was glad that people were willing to say right away that he had suddenly developed a symptom of a potentially life-threatening medical problem.

  45. Another name*

    This is a hard one!

    On the one hand, at previous workplace we had a stoic long-time employee show up one day to a meeting bright yellow. He was encouraged to leave and go to the doctor – turned out he had cancer; it sadly was terminal.

    On the other hand, as a person who has several long term chronic conditions that are not likely to kill me, when I’m not feeling well I hate being put on the spot by the “you look tired are you feeling okay” crowd, or worse, the “do you have some exciting news to tell us” people who comment on frequent bathroom breaks being taken by women of reproductive age.

    1. Ewwww*

      “do you have some exciting news to tell us?”

      Why yes, I do. Aunt Flo is in town and she keeps flowing. Or, last night’s dinner didn’t agree with me and it’s just making me explode from both ends. *eye roll*

  46. Hiring Mgr*

    For me it just depends on how well I know the person. If I know them well, it would seem normal to ask if they were ok if something appeared off.. If not, I’d probably keep quiet

  47. Nicki Name*

    If the change is dramatic, then either (a) your coworker is aware and anticipating questions about it, or (b) they aren’t aware and they need to be. In either case, speak up!

  48. Quickbeam*

    I’ma nurse in a non-nurse environment (no care responsibilities for co-workers)…and people tolerate a bit more from me because it’s my profession. My line in the sand is that it’s a significant change that hasn’t been acknowledged. I also ask privately. But I do think there is a kindness to ask…I saw a co-worker’s husband at a work event and his skin and coloring were dramatically changed. it bugged me until I told my colleague to please make sure he saw a MD. He ended up having end stage sarcoidosis and had no idea. He got care that gave him another year and that enabled them to plan.

    However on the flip side, I have a congenital mobility impairment (not going away) and it is annoying when people comment about how it could be improved. It can’t. I know you mean well but it is what it is.

  49. SometimesALurker*

    This is so hard, because I think overall it’s a know-the-person and know-your-office sort of thing. I think that in some office cultures, it could be helpful to check in with a few colleagues to get a sense of whether you’ll be the seventh person to ask your coworker if they’re okay that morning or whether everyone is mildly concerned but no one has asked. In others, that would be dumping a big load of fertilizer on the gossip weed-garden.

  50. TootsNYC*

    I am someone who went to a doctor for my chronic cough because a colleague said, “Have you seen a doctor for that? That’s not really normal, and I’m worried about you.”

    So I’m a fan, actually of people who see you frequently saying something.
    Privately (as my colleague did), in a friendly way (as my colleague did), and preferably from someone who actually works directly with you (as my colleague did).
    You don’t diagnose; you stick to symptoms (as my colleague did).

    I also later had a colleague approach HR, who then approached me, to say, “your colleagues are worried about you; have you seen a doctor? Are you OK?” And it was not upsetting to me. (I had spent 2.5 years chasing the cause and nothing seemed to be any good, so I’d just given up.)

    It made me a little self-conscious, but not that much. (for one thing, a cough is not something you hide)

    I think you just do it politely and with concern and consideration. And you don’t pry, or get into a long discussion.

    I think there are ways to handle it that aren’t overstepping, or that if it seems to be overstepping, it’s possible to recover from that.

  51. Ptarmigan*

    I had a lipoma (fatty tumor) in my back that caused my back to be completely asymmetrical. It was really obvious but I never really noticed. It grew for years and nobody said anything to me. Finally when my doctor noticed, some of my friends were like, “Oh, I didn’t want to say anything.” It wasn’t medically dangerous, but I wish they had mentioned it. (It was 17 pounds when the doctor removed it.)

  52. CheeryO*

    I would want to be told, as long as it was coming from a place of concern and from someone who I felt comfortable around. The office creeper told me I looked like I was limping after watching me on my lunch walk outside his window. I actually appreciated the information, since I was dealing with a running injury and had been convincing myself that it was healed when it clearly wasn’t, but the delivery made me sooo uncomfortable. If a work buddy or even my supervisor had said the same thing, it would have been totally fine.

    I think it’s a case-by-case thing, but in general, I think it’s okay to err on the side of saying something, as long as you do it in a kind way and drop it immediately if the person has it handled.

    1. Shirley Keeldar*

      An interesting case where the information was helpful but the delivery was unwelcome! Just shows there’s no simple answer here, and all we can do is try to find a balance between compassion and respecting privacy. And be kind to ourselves and others when the balance accidentally tips. (Also, be open to feedback–if you say, “Gosh, you’re limping, are you okay?” to a person and they say a touch irritably “It’s nothing, just the way my foot is” then you have received your cue to drop it.)

  53. Celeste*

    NPR once had a story of a lady feeling very run down and attributing to life, middle age, etc. She went to a hair appointment and the hairdresser took one look and said she looked terribly pale and asked what was going on. No one else in her family or work had said anything! Suddenly her fatigue seemed scary to her, so she went to a doctor who quickly determined she needed care. It was leukemia.

    I would totally say something about signs of jaundice, or if I noticed some scary pattern (like walking differently or not being able to retain things we just discussed). What if they were having a stroke and you let it go, losing valuable response time? Check on your people, I say.

  54. M from NY*

    I think in this case if you’re going to ask question you have one shot so be specific. Asking “are you ok” does not make it clear why you are asking.

    Stating “I noticed you’re looking a little jaundiced (or a little yellow since jaundice is specific diagnosis) are you ok?” would have given him opportunity to at least double check his appearance elsewhere even though he felt fine. If he was already dealing with situation he could say I’m feeling well and it’s being dealt with.

    By no means should you feel guilty. Use this as a lesson on how to interact with intention otherwise guilt will turn into an excuse to potentially overstep in the future.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Asking “are you ok” does not make it clear why you are asking.

      Right–I think a big goal here should be to provide information and perspective that the person may not have.

      Something like jaundice may come slowly enough that the person don’t really realize when they look in the mirror.

      And some things–frozen shoulder, a cough, even jaundice or a rash, a limp, a bump–people just figure they’ll wait to see if it gets worse, or they just figure nothing really can be done, they’ll wait it out, or they adjust and don’t consider it urgent.

      So providing information from an outside perspective (“you’re really coughing a lot–maybe you didn’t notice how often”; “you seem really yellow to me”; “that doesn’t look comfortable; you shouldn’t have to be in pain; maybe you could talk to a doctor”) can be a good thing you do for other people.

      You just have to do the individual parsing of whether you might do more harm than good.
      In a lot of these, if the person is already treating it, or it’s untreatable, you’ve still expressed good will toward them and you haven’t pried. I think you can recover any damage done; you just say, “Oh, good, I’m glad. Sorry to butt in; I just was worried, and I wish you well. Now about that TPS report…”

    2. Stormy Weather*

      I like this. Combine it with privacy, respect, and the assumption you’ll be told to butt out, and I think most people will be okay.

  55. CL Cox*

    I think in this sort of circumstance, where no one in the office is close with the co-worker, going to the manager is the right thing to do. The manager will most likely be aware if it’s a known medical issue and can simply tell the co-workers that they are aware of the issue, thank you. And if they don’t know of anything, they can either check with HR or speak with the employee in question themselves.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This is what happened with my cough at one of my jobs–a colleague went to HR, and HR called me to talk about whether I was OK, whether I’d addressed the issue, etc.

      (At first I thought it was a complaint about it being disruptive–because it can be! I’m getting an office this week to isolate my coughing–but she said it wasn’t that (or wasn’t just that), it was also that the person was concerned about me.)

  56. nnn*

    If it’s me you’re talking to:

    – Yes, I know my appearance has changed
    – Yes, I am receiving appropriate medical care
    – Yes, I am working very, very hard, to the point of tedium, to mitigate both the health issues and the changes to my appearance
    – Yes, this is the “after” picture, even with appropriate medical care and the best beauty/fashion/health/nutrition efforts my time and money can buy
    – Yes, approximately 437 people have already mentioned it to me
    – Yes, I already feel bad about it every single moment of every single day and I’m just trying to get through the f-ing day without having to feel like everyone is scrutinizing my appearance like in middle school!

    Just because Joe can somehow go multiple weeks without looking in a properly-lighted mirror doesn’t mean that this is extrapolable to the general population.

    1. Mike C.*

      Why would you go through this massive list of things if all you have to say is that you’re aware of the issue and that you’re fine?

      1. Anneanon*

        Because this is an ask the readers post and nnn is sharing how she personally feels when someone comments on her looking ill? This is very obviously an internal monologue and not a suggested script, FFS.

      2. BadWolf*

        Because some people don’t stop after the first question and you end up with a whole series of answers thinking you can get them to stop asking (like rational people).

        I’ve had people insist that I’ve dyed my hair. Like, “Did you dye your hair again?” “Nope, I haven’t.” “Are you sure, it looks like you have.” “No, I haven’t dye it for 5 months.” “Last week it was a different color, I’m sure you dyed it.” “It might be a little more faded? I don’t know, I haven’t dyed it again.” “It was definitely different before, I am sure of it.”

        Okay, whatever.

  57. blink14*

    I can see where your hesitation came from! It can be really hard to approach someone in that kind of situation, especially if it’s a physical appearance symptom, and to top it off, he’s new to your office. I think in every situation, whether that’s school, work, a public setting, a neighborhood, etc, humanity has to come in to play, but so do boundaries. It is clearly not cool to comment on someone’s weight, diet, etc. But with something so off like skin color, it’s something to show concern for.

    I have several chronic illnesses, and truly my skin tone and color can be a very on point marker for how I am feeling. If I’m not doing well, I tend to be chalk white or very red, and I have had people ask with genuine concern if I’m ok during these episodes. It really doesn’t bother me, and I’ve actually had a few people point out some other element of physical concern to them to make sure I am aware of it and ok. Taking work out of it, it’s natural and a good thing to care about someone’s health. Sometimes you have to take the risk of the person reacting badly, but you hope they will seek medical treatment either way. I try to operate on the principal of better to be safe than sorry.

  58. things*

    I was in a similar situation a few years ago, but it was mental health related. I was living in a new city, didn’t know anyone too well. A medication was messing with me and while I knew something was off, I had no idea to what degree. I wish someone said something to me. I did get the help I needed because of my own ability to put two and two together, but I could have saved myself a lot of emotional pain and trauma. I also don’t doubt that a couple more days, I would have ended up attempting suicide.

    This is my take – commenting on someone’s appearance/personality etc in a general state isn’t appropriate. But commenting on someone’s CHANGE of appearance, personality, etc. out of actual concern is different. Noticing things about people is a sign of perception and caring about them. I would also argue that a few minutes of awkwardness by far trumps a lifetime of regret.

    At the end of the day. you know your own heart and your own intentions. If they are positive and coming from a good place, who cares how someone else takes them? I would much rather be in a position where I said something and be wrong, than not say something and be right (to a potential life-ending) circumstance. Personally, I couldn’t life with myself.

  59. EJane*

    I think there’s two categories of health issues here: visible, and behavioral.
    The letter writer a while back with the coworker who was invasive and rude about the possibility of an eating disorder was behavioral. Someone having headaches repeatedly is behavioral; someone having panic attacks regularly (hi!) is behavioral. Trembling is behavioral, even if it’s often involuntary.

    Visible issues are things that could ostensibly go unnoticed: jaundice, someone suddenly losing their color, a sudden rash of bruises (thinking here of bleeding disorders, so not bruises that are obviously caused BY something. A massive bruise up and down someone’s forearm? caused by something. A peppering of small bruises all over someone’s legs or arms? worth mentioning), a breakout of hives.

    Mentioning behavioral issues is rude and invasive. At most, if someone is visibly struggling, asking if they need help is fine.
    Visual issues are more acceptable to mention if they’re mentioned carefully, and the focus is on sympathy, not their face. i.e. “How are you doing lately? You look very yellow.” or “Ouch, those bruises look painful” or “Oh, you look really pale. Do you want me to get you a chair?”

    Phrasing concern within a POLITE question is better than “dude you’re yellow.” It gives them something to respond to, instead of “…..????”, and demonstrates polite concern, not invasive curiosity.

  60. James*

    It depends on the relationship one has with one’s coworkers.

    There are some folks I work with who could say “You look like crap, go home” and it would be perfectly fine. We have the type of relationship where we speak our minds to one another, with no hard feelings on either side.

    For other folks, if they came up and started complaining about how I look I’d consider it extremely invasive. We’re friendly enough at work, but we just don’t have the type of relationship where commenting on one another’s looks is normal.

    That said, I’d err on the side of protecting the staff. If you think someone’s infectious it warrants at least asking if they feel okay. And if their health is affecting or potentially affecting their work, that warrants a conversation.

  61. Megan M*

    One time I had what I thought were a terrible case of menstrual cramps, but I mentioned to my coworker that I was in late because of the pain, and I was looking a bit tense during the day- she urged me to go to the doctor, and it was appendicitis. I am very grateful that she commented on my health, although normally it seems like a bad idea!

    1. New Job So Much Better*

      Had the same, thought it was a stomach virus and ended up waiting until the pain subsided to get checked out. By then my appendix had gone dormant, thankfully it didn’t rupture. My hubs insisted I go at that point, and got put on high dose antibiotics.

  62. weighing in on jaundice*

    I also had jaundice at work & absolutely knew it (the contrast between the yellow and my natural skin tone was dramatic. There were also other symptoms). I feel it’s a YMMV situation. Know the person, know their circumstance, be sensitive to their discomfort, their situation.

    I was in a pt job which was bad about time off & had no employer-provided insurance. This was shortly after the ACA passed, and our state laws had just changed. If not for that, as far as I knew at that time, I would have had no insurance, and that absolutely informed my decisions.

    I absolutely would not have wanted to discuss this at work. And to hear speculation about addiction would have been mortifying! Mine was systemic. Concern and desire to help are admirable- but I think, also, it helps to tread lightly.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I think few of us are saying that people should speculate (especially to you!) about addiction, etc.

      But saying, “You seem very yellow; that’s kind of worrying. Did you notice?” and then maybe, “I hope you can talk to a doctor about it; it’s often a serious sign” is a reasonable approach.

  63. Granger*

    Okay, so what if you’re the boss?

    I had an employee who suddenly couldn’t remember how to do some basic things and I started to notice and became increasingly concerned. At first I addressed it gently at first asking if she felt okay and she said she did.

    Then one day she forgot how to start copying (the green button!) and I asked her to my office and I told her I was concerned, gave her a few examples, and waited to hear what she had to say. She said that her doctor had left and she hadn’t seen one in a few years. But she didn’t want to believe the examples and burst into tears and basically ran and got her purse and left. Permanently. I followed her out and tried to coax her back to my office to reiterate that it was genuine concern, but she wasn’t having any of it.

    I struggled with the topic because it was the first time I had to deal with an employee’s fitness for work and because while I know to not diagnose anyone, my mother has had many “mini-strokes” and I was confident this was an issue at that level even if it wasn’t the same problem.

    To this day I regret that I was ill equipped to handle the situation in a way that would have a better result, but I honestly can’t say that I know what to do / how to handle it differently except to put the employee on sick leave / focus on the fitness to work / require a doctor’s note to return – ?

    1. Anon for right now*

      (hugs) That’s hard. Thank you for caring enough to want to help. Her reaction makes me think she’d noticed it too.

      I work in a setting where that sort of thing is a major safety issue. I’m in Phoenix, so the heat is something we prep for. In one case, I had a 22-year-old laborer who would come down with heat stroke every time he went outside for a normal work day. He’d work on Monday, then be out 3-4 days with heat stroke. After the third time, I told him he needed to see a doctor – turns out he’d had liver issues as a child (which he didn’t know about), that made him extremely vulnerable to heat stroke. If I hadn’t said anything, he would have just kept trucking along until he killed himself. Now he’s charge of our shop/vehicles/inventory. During the summer he’s in the air conditioning all day, and is only allowed out on jobs during the winter months.

    2. I'm A Little Teapot*

      Honestly, I get why you feel guilty but I don’t think you were out of line or handled it terribly. Just because SHE handled it terribly isn’t on you. You were 100% correct to bring it up. You were compassionate, you provided specific examples, you weren’t pushy. Hopefully she got some help, but that wasn’t your responsibility.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I think that your approach was really the best. I can’t find any fault with it.
      And you can’t take on the responsibility of her reaction; that’s disrespectful.

      Perhaps the only thing you could have done–and some people will think it’s invasive, but sometimes when it’s people’s health or happiness like this, I don’t really care–was to write her a letter that would get to her later to say, “I hope you are well; I have high regard for you and wish you good things. I encourage you to search for a new doctor, because you deserve to have good care. I know that under that kind of care, you are a powerful employee. ” And then, if it’s true: “If I can help you navigate this, please let me know. You don’t have to come back to work, but I could help you research doctors or something.”

    4. Smithy*

      I think that in the moment, you handled it with privacy and what sounds like kindness.

      The only thing I could think of is perhaps how you approach connecting with direct reports on a regular basis. Not to become friends, but to find time to better connect as people. Maybe it’s getting a coffee a couple times of year and not specifically talking about a work task, or taking time during a 1 on 1 to talk about non-work.

      There are certainly bad actors in this space that cross boundaries, but if you have a “strictly business” relationship with your direct reports, then if the first time you’re having a more personal conversation it’s about worrisome news – that it has the potential to be more jarring. Be it mini-strokes or other dementia diagnoses – all of that can be deeply distressing and there was nothing you could have done for a better result. But that would be my only thoughts.

    5. TootsNYC*

      Also, you don’t know that you didn’t help her.
      Her immediate reaction was to run. But maybe your words and your concern filtered through and led her to act sooner than she might have.

      1. Granger*

        Thank you for the kind and helpful thoughts and suggestions! I saw her husband (in public) not long after her hasty departure and he said that she had subsequently found a doctor and that she had in fact had a series of small strokes for which she was being treated.

        In a twisted turn of events, she started a personal vendetta campaign to argue publicly far and wide that she’d been forced out and tried to get me fired (I was agog! My agenda literally started and ended with my goal of not interfering, but to also encourage her to see her doctor!). Her husband just shook his head over the whole thing. I kept my job, but now I’m even more cautious about the subject. No good deed goes unpunished. *sigh*

  64. Rachel*

    I have Raynaud’s, which causes the skin on my hands and nose to turn white than blue-ish from time to time. I don’t mind when a coworker points it out, provided they don’t hypothesize about the cause. I’ve heard everything from ‘you must wear cheap jeans’ to ‘you should stop smoking’ (I don’t) to ‘you should be better about cleaning up after painting.’ Raynaud’s can resolve on its own or a symptom of a more serious medical condition (like lupus), so I would be careful about pressing the issue if I noticed it in someone else.

  65. almost empty nester*

    Maybe not a popular response considering the times we live in, but I would acknowledge up front that it’s none of my business while bringing it up tactfully. “Joe, I know it’s none of my concern, and feel free to tell me so, but your skin seems to have changed color that’s consistent with jaundice, which concerns me. Are you ok?” I’m really ok with someone telling me that “they’ve got it…no worries”, but I would rather bring it up and have them shut me down than to risk their health by being silent.

  66. HONK*

    While I am in full support of “mind your own business” at work in an astonishing majority of cases, I do think in general humans have a responsibility to look out for the humans close to them on a very basic level. Health definitely falls under that – it’s important enough that I’d rather risk the awkwardness. My take is that the coworkers who work closest to a person are the ones who should do it, because they see each other everyday and have a decent idea what they’re usually like. It would however be super weird to point out to the secretary from the downstairs department that you visit once a month that she looks pale.

    One of my officemates asked if I was sick one spring because I kept blowing my nose, and I told her I had no clue what was happening because my eyes and nose were like faucets but I had no other cold/flu symptoms. She then told me it sounded like allergies and that’s how I found out I had developed an adult-onset pollen allergy.

    The key here as with any sharing of concerns in the office, I think, is to be polite and mindful of the person’s response and only ask once. If they don’t want to talk about it or if it’s being handled, they’ll say so.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      Adult-onset allergies SUCK!
      My mom always had bad allergies but recently was diagnosed with a ton of new allergies – food and topical. One of the things she is allergic to is in everything! Shampoos, soaps (laundry, hand, dish, etc…), lotions. And she is allergic to some of her favorite foods – shellfish, tree nuts, dairy. Family dinners are fun.

    2. E*

      And now I know that adult onset pollen allergy is a thing, thank you. I couldn’t understand why I never had allergies to pollen as a kid, but mid-college it all hit like a pile of bricks.

    3. allathian*

      Adult-onset allergies are a pain! I became allergic to pollen following the birth of my child eleven years ago. Ten years ago I made a mistake of eating strawberries in the middle of pollen season (a late, cold spring followed by a heatwave in June, meaning that the trees I’m allergic to were still blooming when the first strawberries were ripening) and I got a horrible, very painful rash around my mouth. After that I developed allergies to basically all uncooked fruit and vegetables except bananas and cucumbers… Admittedly it’s mainly a problem during pollen season, but I can’t eat uncooked tomatoes at any time without symptoms (a cherry tomato feels like a green jalapeno in my mouth). I avoid citrus, but will eat an apple every now and then and deal with the mild symptoms.

  67. LCH*

    I think I’ll come down on the side of say something. Better safe than sorry? I told a woman on the street her dog was limping and she got very snippy because she already knew, it had been to the vet, and people told her about it all the time. I’d still do it again. Versus when my dad was limping pretty noticeably so I figured he already knew. He did not! He didn’t end up seeing a Dr for another month or so (arthritis, nothing life threatening but he could have started PT sooner).

    1. TootsNYC*

      My goal would always be to tell someone something they didn’t realize or might not realize (like skin color changing, or frequent coughs becoming even more frequent). So I would probably always thing someone knew about a limp.

      But with my family members, I will flat out ask in a much more “invasive” way, because I think it’s more my business with them. I also think I’d have a better sense of whether they are someone to ignore or downplay a symptom, and I’d also think perhaps I’d have heard if they HAD sought treatment, and it would be OK for me to be informed. So, “Dad, what did your doctor say about your limp?” or “Dad, did you take that limp to a doctor?” or “Dad, I haven’t heard you mention anything about your limp–did you talk to the doctor about it?”

  68. Zap R.*

    “Joe is a great colleague, but notoriously — usually humorously — bad with basic life skills and we joke that he needs a whole office of mothers to help look after him.”

    I’m sure Joe is very nice but to be brutally honest, this is a little bit of a red flag.

    1. Nonprofit Nancy*

      I flinched at that line but I don’t want us to derail. Although yeah, this kind of subconscious connection with women = caregivers is crappy.

    2. JJ*

      omg YES I have been trawling the comments to see if anyone had mentioned this already. “A whole office of mothers” = the same kind of thing as “women should do all the party planning and kitchen cleaning,” it is not an appropriate office dynamic. I do think you did the right thing in this instance (because anyone can be blind/in denial to their medical stuff), but do not pick up this guy’s slack just because he hasn’t bothered to learn normal adult life skills; you’re not doing him a favor by treating that shortcoming as funny or cute.

  69. CaVanaMana*

    My understanding is that jaundice is serious and potentially an emergency so, I’d say something. I’d say something if someone appears to be having a stroke or appears to be severely hypoglycemic.

    1. boop the first*

      This was my understanding too, and it’s making me feel a little dramatic when people equate it to “I already know, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
      Although I can totally see myself laying under a desk having a heart attack and saying “thanks, I know, I’m just fine down here.” lol

  70. Mike C.*

    Christ, just say something. Don’t be a jerk about it, be clear and explicit about your concerns and listen to how they respond. I’ve seen too many ambulances at work to have any patience for folks who refuse to say anything because “it’s not their problem” or “it’s none of your business”.

    If you didn’t know what to do before now that’s fine, now you do.

    1. Important Moi*


      “if I said something, they would have responded rudely and I would have been uncomfortable forever.”

      1. Lissa*

        Yes, I think there’s an assumption that people aren’t responding because they don’t care or don’t think it’s their problem, but I think for many people it’s more that they want to not overstep, or they are trying to be kind, or not bring up something someone’s heard 400 times before. There are many people upthread with divergent opinions on what’s polite and rude, and it isn’t like one is born with the knowledge that it’s OK to say something if they suspect an issue with jaundice but NOT something like an eating disorder.
        For the record I DO think it’s better to say something! But I don’t think it’s that obvious or easy either.

        1. Mike C.*

          So, I totally understand that folks may not understand that they need to act in these situations, that they need to be taught that it’s ok to do and made to feel comfortable in doing so if the occasion arises.

          I will say that there are several folks in this thread who have literally said “not my business” and “I’m at peace with death”.

  71. Salsa Your Face*

    The litmus test for telling someone something about their appearance has always been “can they do something about it right now?” So if they have spinach in their teeth or toilet paper on their shoe, tell them. They can fix it right now.

    I feel like medical issues are the same. If it’s a sudden change that might require medical attention, tell them. If they have have suddenly and alarmingly changed color, you tell them, because they could be in the same situation as the OP’s colleague. If they are suddenly and alarmingly slurring their words, you tell them, because they could be having a stroke or their blood sugar has plummeted. They could also be having a migraine, but the potential ramifications of letting a stroke or low blood sugar go untreated are too high. But if they have, like an above poster mentioned, a large scar on their body, keep your mouth shut. They know it’s there and there’s nothing they can do about it in the moment, so your comments have no effect. Don’t bug someone about a medical thing they can’t do anything about.

  72. Brett*

    After having a co-worker develop sudden onset Bell’s Palsy in the middle of a meeting (which looks a _lot_ like a stroke), I don’t have any concerns about telling someone when a health issue looks serious. I also had a case where a co-worker had a serious head cut (needed multiple stitches to close) after stumbling on the stairs, and was unaware that he was even bleeding. I mean, “Hey, your head is gushing blood!” seems like an obvious one, but surprisingly other people saw it and didn’t say a word to him.

      1. MsSolo*

        I don’t think this is something that’s changed? People have been dropping dead at work for centuries, often in scenarios where coworkers could have said something, but made assumptions about the person’s self-awareness (I mean, people also dropped dead because they got caught in spinning jennies and so on, so at least that’s less common these days). Maybe specific, small communities have changed, or people have switched between them, but overall in the West people have always had a hands off attitude to other people’s health and a poor education on what constitutes “potential imminent death” vs “sign of a condition being managed”*.

        *I am genuinely shocked how many people here didn’t realise jaundice is so serious; I’m pretty certain we did cover in school a variety of “call an ambulance” symptoms, like dropping face, chest pain, heavy bleeding, and skin colour changes including yellow, blue-purple, and black.

    1. Sabrina*

      Oh that happened at my office too! Coworker had concussed himself while surveying a low bridge. He’d hit his head, knocked himself out, and when he came too woozily decided to drive himself back to the office to write the survey report. His team noticed the dried blood on his head and insisted he get looked at, he had no idea.

      Head injuries are no joke, always worth mentioning.

  73. Eeyore's Missing Tail*

    After what happened in my family, I will always say something. My MIL came to visit us after my daughter was born. My husband made several comments about how her coloring looked different. I can’t remember if he said yellow or not, but she kept saying she looked different. When she went home a few days later, another friend told her she was looking yellow and needed to go to the doctor. Turns out that she has stage 1 or 2 pancreatic cancer (from what we’ve been told, her type is harder to stage). The tumor is at the head of her pancreas and was pushing on a bile duct. If no one had said anything, I don’t think her prognosis would be nearly as good as it is.

    For me, I’ll talk to he coworker discretely and won’t go gossiping everywhere. And if they hint or tell me to drop it, I will. But for something could potentially be very serious, I’ll say something.

  74. Goldfinch*

    People have over-corrected due to the trend of avoiding any talk regarding weight or diet. It’s unfortunate because tactless thuds are going to continue to thud, whereas sensitive kind folks will now say nothing.

    Telling someone, versus asking, is key. Privately explain your concern and the reason for it, express your desire for their well-being, then end it. Don’t make them tell you anything in return.

    I did this for a colleague with melasma on the back of her neck/shoulder. It was in a spot that would have been difficult for her to see in a mirror, and she did end up asking her derm about it. Luckily, it was benign.

    1. Lissa*

      Yes! This is what I was saying upthread too. I think that we’ve had it drilled into us to not say anything, and it’s not necessarily going to be intuitive when to. Especially since even here there’s a variety of reactions to the same thing, from “please say something” to “I hate it when people say things.”

  75. Delta Delta*

    I think I’m always going to err on the side of caring about other humans and would probably say something like, “are you feeling all right? You don’t look yourself today.” That gives an opening for the person to engage. If the person says they know and they’re being cared for, we leave it at that. If the person doesn’t know and I can go further, I’d rather flag something that might be serious.

  76. Jennifer*

    I think it’s dangerous to tell people to NEVER mention medical issues for fear of causing offense. There are times when you have to insist that someone see a doctor or even go to the ER because their life is in danger. People are suffering, sometimes alone, because people are so afraid of offending someone they won’t offer help. It’s really troubling.

    I’ll always say something. If you tell me you know about it and to leave you alone, I’ll drop it. But I’m saying something.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, I think that many people know the difference between concern trolling and useful inquiry. It’s those that do the first under the guise of the second that screw it up for us all.

  77. Lady Glitter Sparkles*

    If the worst case scenario means that someone could die, then the end justifies the means and I would ABSOLUTELY say something. You can say something discreetly.

    We had a wonderful lady here at work that had developed jaundice. It unfortunately turned out to be bile duct cancer and she passed away not 6 months later. If someone did not say anything, she may have died sooner and she may never have known about the cancer. But at least she had a few months to spend with her family.

    Anyway, I would most definitely say something if I even remotely thought that the situation could lead to death.

  78. Diplo*

    I feel like being jaundiced is different than something like having dark circles under your eyes or just looking tired. It’s usually an emergency, right?
    If your coworker started slurring their speech like they were having a stroke or they started bleeding or their arm appeared to be broken you’d definitely say something.

  79. schnauzerfan*

    I have had lots of suspicious moles removed. The curse of a blue eyed, light skinned, water baby. One day I noticed that a co-worker had a suspicious looking mole on the back of her neck. This was something that was usually covered by her hair. I knew she was a widow who might well not have had a family member who would point it out to her. I agonized over mentioning it. “oh hi. Did you know you’ve got this big spiderlooking thing on your neck?” didn’t seem like the way to go. I finally brought in one of the many pamphlets the dermatologist keeps giving me and told her “hey, tell me to mind my own business, but when you had you hair up on Tuesday, I noticed that you had a mole like thingy. Look just like the melanoma example here. If you haven’t had someone look at it….” She did and it was. I’m glad I mentioned it, because time is critical in these cases.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Several years ago, a doctor attending a Broadway show noticed a melanoma on the back of the woman sitting in the row in front of her, and spoke to her about it after the show, gave the woman her business card, insisted she should see a doctor and offered to help connect her with one.

      Saved her life.

    2. allathian*

      My SIL has longish hair that usually covers her neck. She lives in another town and on a visit with her mother, she had her hair up in a towel after a shower, and my MIL noticed a large mole on her neck in a place that is usually covered by her hair and told her to see a doctor about it. My MIL’s a retired RN, so my SIL basically made the appointment to see a doctor then and there. Not her GP, because she wasn’t at home, but anyway she got a referral to a dermatologist the following week. She had surgery within a month of diagnosis, so it was serious if not life-threatening. My SIL is single and a fairly private person, so it’s unlikely anyone except her mom or her hairdresser would have noticed. Her hairstyle is the kind where you can go six months between haircuts. My SIL is blonde and very light-skinned, so now she has to cover up and wear strong sunscreen.

  80. Avocado Toast*

    There’s some kind of magic ratio between how well you know the person and the severity of the issue, I think.

    A person who knew me very well didn’t say anything when she noticed I seemed unusually tired/weak one day…and then I passed out in front of her because my blood pressure was dramatically low. She felt awful about not saying something but my mood and energy were something that she only noticed because we spent a lot of time together. If Random Accountant #3 who I rarely talk to commented on it I probably wouldn’t take him too seriously.

    However, if Random Accountant #3 had cut his leg on something and was bleeding all over the floor and didn’t seem to know, I’d feel okay telling him about this (and vice versa).

    1. Avocado Toast*

      Also, asking with compassionate intent can make up for awkwardness in many situations. I had a bad injury and there was a huge difference between “Are you in a lot of pain? Why did the doctor give you [medical accommodation] instead of [other medical accommodation]? etc.” and “Hey, I know we’ve been busy today and you’re looking a little tired, can I get you a chair to rest in?”

  81. Hamburke*

    I’ve been jaundiced before (short-term medication side effect where I was actually told to watch for it and come back immediately if I noticed the symptoms). I have good bathroom lighting but literally didn’t notice – my mom did immediately and took me to the doctor. I kinda thought I looked tired (which I felt so no surprise). Since then, I have commented on this particular symptom anytime I’ve seen it – but only once. otherwise I try to leave it alone as “not my business”.

  82. Not really a waitress*

    Ok. DId anyone else think of the episode of House where House tells the clinic patient his wife is having an affair? The patient is like why do you think that? And House goes BECAUSE YOU ARE ORANGE Or something like that

    I like the “hey I know its not my business but I need to say something approach”

  83. Yamikuronue*

    I think it really depends on your relationship. I sit next to my boss and we talk most of the day; if he came into work yellow, I would 100% ask if he’s okay. But the people who sit a few seats down and don’t work with him very closely wouldn’t say anything, because they don’t have that kind of relationship. That lets us all sort of toe the line between everyone asking and nobody asking — each of us look out for those we’re in close working relationship with or particular friends with and not the whole office.

    1. Jennifer*

      I don’t think you have to have a close personal relationship with someone to tell them they look gravely ill and their organs could be shutting down. What about the reserved coworker who doesn’t have a close personal relationship with anyone at work? What if they don’t have anyone in their personal life either?

  84. Kristinyc*

    One time I was walking behind a coworker (who I thought I knew pretty well) up the stairs outside our building. I noticed he was limping, and I asked if he was okay. He gave me a puzzled look, and I was like, “Um, you’re limping. Did you injure yourself?” And he slowly lifted up his pant leg to show a prosthetic leg. So I was of course mortified and said, “OMG, I’m so sorry, I didn’t…” and his swift reply was, “It’s okay. You didn’t cut off my leg.”

    So, uh, there’s an argument for not saying anything.

  85. Diana Barry*

    Today’s post hits home because of a colleague of mine . I’m not close to her, other ladies at work are, but her face has turned almost red/purple, and she has these big bumps on it that are chafing. It looks so gross, and worse than cystic acne, because it’s all over her face and not restricted to an area of the face. What’s even more gross, is that when I was having tea with her and another colleague, she was picking at the chafing skin, while having tea, it was awful. It was so disgusting, but I stay silent, despite wanting to recommend my dermatologist to her, because I figured that those who are close with her, may have discussed it already and it’s really not my place to comment. So really, here today, is more of a vent about my frequent observation.

    1. AGD*

      I also have acne and dermatillomania. Body focused repetitive disorders are horrible because most people who have them KNOW they have them and are ashamed and know it’s damaging to skin/hair/joints and still that doesn’t change anything. I used to get teased in school for “picking pimples,” which was true but the contempt hurt badly. Safe to assume in this case that there is plenty of awareness, I’d say – and thanks for not saying anything in spite of (understandably) feeling grossed out.

  86. E*

    I was the sick coworker last year, I had lost a concerning amount of weight in a couple of months (between very active toddler and busy full time job (plus moving house) = very little self care time) or at least I didn’t realize it should be so concerning – until more than one coworker had asked in genuine concern “Are you ok, you look so very thin?” or something similar. None of them pried further than to let me know they were worried – I did know I’d lost weight but didn’t realize how severe the change to my appearance. I appreciated the concern as it made me push the doctors to start treatment rather than wait on their seeming lack of urgency/alarm. I’m mostly better now and have been making a greater effort to get enough sleep and monitor my health.

  87. anon for this*

    This is a fascinating question. Sometimes I think life with an undiagnosed chronic issue, unless it gets seriously disruptive, is amazingly easy to normalize. I spent a while thinking I wasn’t being responsible enough about exercising/eating or sleep hygiene. I ended up playing a game of chicken with my future. What was going to come first: getting fired, or discovering that I had sleep apnea? I had no idea that most people fall asleep in 5-7 minutes and wake up feeling pretty good most of the time. I keep wondering what might have taught me this earlier. I DID have several colleagues tell me they were concerned, but it was too easy to assume that the problem was that I wasn’t looking after myself well.

  88. LGC*

    I’m…actually on the side of being honest. It was probably not the kindest wording, but I think you can bring it up once and then let the person take it from there.

    I’ll speak for myself, but a lot of the time when I think I’m being kind by not bringing something up, I’m really just avoiding a conversation that’s uncomfortable for me. Professional norms do dictate a bit of personal distance, and I feel like if you’re not that close in your work it might not be your place to say it. But also if someone has clear jaundice it’s probably okay to privately say, “dude, this is going to sound weird but you look yellow, are you okay?”

    This actually motivates me to bring up an uncomfortable thing I have to discuss with one of my employees.

    1. Important Moi*

      ” I’m really just avoiding a conversation that’s uncomfortable for me.”

      Louder for the people in the back!

  89. PortlandLawyer*

    I have been in a similar position… a former boss had a large skin cancer on his lip/cheek that he did not seem to be treating and had not acknowledged in any way. I did not want to bring it up, because he had to know it was there, right? But month after month it was there and no one mentioned any treatment or discussion. Eventually, he had some kind of regular doctor appointment, and was immediately referred to a dermatologist/oncologist, and had surgery, but apparently, he had no idea the thing on his face was a problem. I felt awful for not saying anything, and would have felt worse if he had not had a good outcome from treatment.

  90. Colorado*

    I would most definitely say something. Just as I would help someone who was injured or having an acute health issue. I would because I feel it’s basic human decency and my nature to care about people and want to help. But I’m also the person who will tell you there’s spinach in your teeth.

  91. probably actually a hobbit*

    Full disclosure: I have awkwardly discussed things that turned out to be important three times with co-workers: A) lump – cancer; B) odd symptom – aneurysm; C) ugly mole – melanoma (all three are currently doing well now years later — yay!)

    That said, we are all falling for *hindsight bias* — we are working backward with the knowledge that this co-worker’s finding turned out to be very medically important. To make a recommendation for OP, we have to do it *without knowing how it came out* or our recommendations are useless

    My recommendation – I agree with everyone who says to bring it up once, clearly but politely, *in private* and then drop it forever unless directly asked

    My final word — OP: don’t beat yourself up — you handled this right based on your level of knowledge and your relationship with the co-worker. Your other co-workers who pushed him harder probably have more knowledge about jaundice as a symptom and rightly pushed harder based on that knowledge.

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      I once came to work with what I thought was a cold. A coworker said “look, they’re all crowded around the sick girl!” I looked in the bathroom mirror. My face was paper-white. I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with tonsillitis.

  92. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    I’m pretty shocked how blase some of the responses here are about responding to someone who’s showing clear signs of health issues. Jaundice is an indicator of life-threatening illness in many cases. Bring it up — professionally and discreetly — but bring it up?

    Would you not mention someone bleeding at work? Or someone showing signs they’re about to pass out, or looking like they’re about to be violently ill? Come on.

    This comment brought to you by “my late husband’s pancreatic cancer was diagnosed because of sudden onset of jaundice”.

    1. Jennifer*

      I’m so sorry about your husband and I totally agree. Why would you need to wait until you have a close, personal relationship with someone before telling them they are gravely ill?

  93. Probably Nerdy*

    I had a coworker who literally coughed badly for 4 months. I brought it up with him but he brushed me off. It was annoying because he sat next to me. We worked in a place with easy medical access (military base) but he was from a culture where men are expected to be very macho and never go to a doctor.

    Long story short, I brought it up with both of our bosses, who did nothing and just gaslighted me and told me I was hearing things and that everything was fine and shut up. My boss literally told me I had ‘no proof’ that he was ever coughing.

    So my advice is that it really depends on the culture. I would argue that it’s basic human decency to care about people’s health, but you can’t make them care about their own health, and you can’t make your boss care about your working environment.

  94. Ellen N.*

    I had the exact same experience as the coworker. My liver failed as a result of medication I was taking. I didn’t notice that I’d turned bright yellow because I like no lighting in the morning and I don’t look in mirrors much.

    Unfortunately, I had a horrible doctor who didn’t connect the dots that turning bright yellow along with many other symptoms (itching like crazy, pee being bright orange all day, loss of appetite, weight loss, etc.) and test results that indicated that my liver was failing meant that my liver was failing.

    One day, one of my coworkers said that she would not leave my side until I was on my way to the emergency hospital. She may have saved my life.

    It’s not unusual for people to not realize they’ve developed a health problem. I know a woman who didn’t realize that her thyroid had stopped functioning until her parents pointed out the goiter on her neck. I didn’t realize that my dog had a tumor until a friend pointed it out. I think that saving a life is more important than social propriety.

  95. Princesa Zelda*

    It’s a bit unusual but: I’m red-deficient colorblind, so changes in skin tone absolutely go unnoticed for me! I notice when I’m tan, since it’s a dramatic shift in contrast when I hold my (tan) arm against my (paper-white, untanned) stomach, but changes like blushing, sunburn, jaundice, other people being tan? Don’t notice. So when people tell me I look red, I might be mildly annoyed, because walking to work every day all summer does tend to turn one red! I know!, but generally I’m grateful because I know people are willing to tell me if they’re concerned about me. So if I were Joe, I genuinely would not and could not have known I was weirdly yellow and needed to go to the doctor immediately.
    I don’t know the mechanisms of politeness here, but I do think that it should be okay to bring up sudden, dramatic changes where it’s not impossible the person could have missed it, especially if it could be something really serious.

  96. Mia*

    My rule of thumb for pointing out potential health issues would be something like “not unless their condition has progressed to the point of being an obvious potential emergency.” I think highly visible things like vibrantly yellow skin, large goiters/tumors, etc. all kind of fall under that category.

  97. MiddleGenerationMillennial*

    I think if there’s someone in your office who’s a designated “safety person/ emergency crisis” (fire drill roll call, first aid kit manager, OSHA certified, etc.), they may be the person to talk to first.

    1. Ellen N.*

      In my case, it was coworkers who were friends who ordered me to the hospital. I wouldn’t have wanted someone in an “official capacity” to intervene in my health care.

  98. Jennifer Juniper*

    Even if Joe’s apartment was actually a cave, how did Joe miss the fact that his skin was yellow? We presume Joe uses the office bathroom, which has good lighting, and the bathroom has mirrors.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Joe just thinks it’s a trick of the lighting or that his perceptions are off. Or that some people are naturally sallow. Or he doesn’t really look in the mirror often, and maybe not at the same time other people are in the bathroom (so that he’d see the contrast).

      And it perhaps came on gradually enough that he just adjusted his expectations.
      Or he sort of noticed it but didn’t think of it as being anything particularly important–maybe he’s not getting enough sun, or he’s not getting enough sleep.

    2. cacwgrl*

      You don’t notice it until you really, really notice it. And in my case, the bathroom lighting is terrible anyway. I was feeling sick as it was and not really going anywhere else, like the store, the gym, etc.

    3. Mia*

      It might have started to happen gradually, or maybe his skin tone has yellow undertones and he’s just not especially observant. Plus it’s kind of easy to just…get really used to your own face, whatever it looks like. I have an autoimmune condition that causes goiters and facial swelling, but it took a doctor pointing it out to me during a routine physical for me to notice the change before I was diagnosed.

    4. Lina*

      Could be quick onset and he hasn’t seen himself fin a mirror. Happened to a cousin.

      Could be blue-yellow colorblind. Rare, but also happens.

      Could be “change blindness.”

      People hav mentioned the latter. We know it’s an absolute fact people can’t see subtle changes in themselves that occur gradually. People who have seen them “before” and then “after” can do so.

      An example, my BFF has a child who is 4. Last time I saw her she was several inches shorter. I notice the height change. Her parents don’t. Her PARENTS.

  99. SM*

    I once was speaking with a coworker and thought, “Crap, she sounds like she’s had a stroke.” Didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be rude.
    BE RUDE!
    I could have saved her a lot of heartache by being upfront. “Are you okay, you seem to be slurring your words and that isn’t like you.” Better to have someone think you are a bit of a jerk than to have them suffer life-long consequences because you didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

  100. Bird Lady*

    Here’s another scenario – you see what looks like it could be a killer mole on your co-worker. Do you say something?

  101. cacwgrl*

    THIS WAS ME 9 MONTHS AGO! I had been having what we now all know is gallbaldder attacks for 8 months, very intermittently, and we (me, SO, family, coworkers, doctors and chiropractor) all thought it was kidneys – which were fine, then back alignment/PT issue. So I was being treated for the back pain and coincidentally, it was working. The last two big attacks aligned to when the chiro told me I could go back to some light activities and it immediately caused pain. I had the last big attack on Mother’s Day and at that point, slowly started to show jaundice. However, I naturally have a dark complexion, had sick young nieces passing flu bugs around and we had all been extremely busy with a major retirement in the family. I rallied the night of the retirement party and that was the day the yellow became very clear. I was extremely sick, on the verge of permanent kidney damage and none of us connected the dots. My cousins all figured it was fine because again, distracted, until my brother’s fairly new GF stepped up and said “there is something wrong with you and you need to get checked out”. She did it, she made it clear to me that I needed to get to Urgent Care that next morning. They declined to accept me and sent me to the ER, where I was immediately admitted and later had surgery to eliminate the problem. Because we thought I had the flu or some bug, I had been out of work but I would have listened to my coworkers and at least three of them would have said something if they’d seen it. But it came on so gradually and like in the OPs story, I keep my house darker due to how dang hot it is here. So the shades are always closed and the lights low. I had no idea how serious it was until the dinner and it took someone I trusted to say “get out of here”.

    So long story short, my lesson is learned. Our whole work groups lesson is learned. We actually all talked about it and agreed that if any of us notices anything in the future, we will speak up because my situation was bad and could have been much, much worse. We have the luxury of having all worked together for years, but we’ll have to figure out what to do if we ever have a new comer in the situation. We are HR and there is a bit of do as I say in some situations, so I feel confident that we’ll be watching out for each other.

  102. Krabby*

    To take this to the extreme, we had a manager on another floor in my office who had a severe mental health crisis last year. I won’t go into the details, but he had frequent outbursts which ended with him lying face down on the floor for 20-30 minutes. His team was the only one with it’s own floor, so he was the most senior guy there. When someone from HR happened to be in the area when he had an outburst, none of them reacted. While she was trying to help him, she asked them if they knew what was going on. Someone said, “Oh, he just does this sometimes.” Apparently this had been going on almost daily for over a month.
    He had to be hospitalized. He’s doing much better now, but he’d done serious damage to himself before we were able to get him help.
    Please speak up, at least to HR or a superior.

  103. Cartographical*

    Honestly, I’m someone with a chronic illness and I would 1000x prefer someone say “that’s the third time today you forgot your coffee in the microwave” or “you’re really fidgeting today, are you all right?” than suggest lemon juice/cider vinegar/yoga/head stands/whatever for the millionth time.

    I would never say “Susan, you look great, you’re so skinny now!” if Susan had visibly gotten thinner but if I knew her at all, especially if she was without a lot of support or there were other symptoms, I would definitely go out of my way to make sure she was doing okay. Maybe she’s depressed, maybe she’s on a cleanse, maybe she’s deep in debt, I don’t know, but I would absolutely ask how she was in private and be specific about it if she wanted to know why I asked — and then let it go if she wanted it dropped or whatever else she needed.

    I would never gossip about someone’s appearance outside of checking with a close friend like “is it me or…?” I feel strongly that once you’re at the point of saying something to other people about someone’s condition, you should be saying it to the person themselves or you should shut the discussion down.

    That’s really my bright line. I don’t discuss other people’s bodies with people who aren’t them, and then only rarely, like in a case where someone is showing signs that could be associated with something serious.

    “Wow, Bob, that’s a big mole there!” — no.

    “Hey, Susan, did you see that Bob’s Impressive Mole looks like it’s gaining sentience?” — nope, nope, nope.

    “Bob, I noticed that the mole on your neck has changed enough that it caught my attention. I hope it’s nothing but that’s sometimes a signal that something is off about it, your doctor could tell you more.” — yes, absolutely.

    Maybe that makes me a lousy coworker but I’d rather say something private and direct than find out that Susan has been struggling and no one checked in or Bob didn’t get his mole examined until his physical months later and it turned out to be a problem. And I’d certainly rather do that than succumb to an office “mole watch” or gossip about Susan.

  104. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I think if you notice something that could cause real legitimate concern, it’s okay to mention it. Come at it with a “I don’t want to pry/don’t feel like you need to share anything personal, but I noticed ABC and it concerned me because (insert reasons).” I’m a very private person, but if someone came to me with genuine concern, I’d be okay with it.

    It’s the ones who just want to be in your business and come to you out of fake concern that would piss me off. Or are just generally judgy and rude. At one job, I had a co-worker who was very pale, and every time she’d come in without makeup on another co-worker would ask if she was sick. Translation “you look like shit today, are you sick?”

    1. James*

      That’s because it IS okay to not say anything. Frankly the vast majority of the time the issue you’re bringing up is going to be either a non-issue, something the person is painfully aware of, or both. The letter is an exceptional circumstance, and it’s a really bad idea to build policy around exceptional circumstances.

      Judgment is required here. There’s no simple answer, and sometimes (usually, I’d say) it IS okay to not say anything.

      1. LGC*

        I think it’s more like, “you probably SHOULD say something but you don’t HAVE TO say something.” Specific to this letter, anyway – Joe looked acutely ill!

        But in general, though, it’s like…you’re not responsible for other people’s health, so you shouldn’t feel guilty for not asking. But I think if you notice something is unusual for that person, then…it’s almost weirder to pretend it’s not happening!

        Although I have a couple of Joes and Josephines in my life, so that’s where I’m coming from.

  105. Kathlynn (Canada)*

    So, it’s one thing if it’s pimple popping, or general “you should do this because you look better that way” comments. Also avoid comments that can be summed up as “beauty hurts”. This includes people choosing whether or not they wear dentures. I generally don’t, because they cause me to gag a lot. And that’s something I can’t handle, especially not as a cashier. I also speak very clearly, in spite of missing my top teeth. But they recently got adjusted, and one of the assistant managers was working and claimed I was so much more beautiful and so much easier to understand, along with a coworker she frequently works with. Made me worry all weekend, until I asked several people about it, who all said versions of “no, you speak clearly, and are easy to understand”, the coworker I asked told me that she was likely saying this to be a not so nice person. (She also asked a lot of weird questions like “are they all gone” because yeah, duh, they have been the entire time you’ve known me. And then got grossed out when I went to show her my denture, which I’m not sorry for given how much she triggered my anxiety.)

    On the other hand, if it’s a symptom of a health issue, or you want to support them with dealing with a health issue, please reach out. I was not prepared to adult, due to parental neglect and over controlling mother. So, having a coworker offer their dentist’s number, or having one of my family members do more then lecture me about needing to see a dentist or brush my teeth more, would have helped. Same with my untreated mental health issues. I got lots of lectures about the symptoms, but not a single person offered to help, or told me I might want to seek help for years. Until I reached out and started getting treatment. Then a few years later I had a coworker help me make a phone call (because I have extremely high anxiety about making medical related phone calls) to get on meds.

    While it’s no one’s job to do this, it makes everything a better place if we do so from a place of kindness and concern. And without prying (no matter our misplaced curiosity). Especially if you know they may have reasons they don’t or can’t reach out for help. Like, if you don’t have the extra bandwithe to do so, that’s okay. But don’t let social norms keep you from bring up something that might be life or dealth

  106. Sana*

    I think it doesn’t hurt to express concern, especially if someone is yellow, but I’d take the approach of something like, “You’re looking a bit jaundiced! I hope everything is okay. Now, about the Gleeson account” so that no one has to dwell on it and you’re not demanding a conversation about their personal life.

    Even this is probably a bit over the line for some, but I’d rather at least say something. I’d just try to do it in a way that didn’t require them to disclose anything personal about their health.

  107. Koala dreams*

    The situation in the letter is memorable because it’s the rare situation where it’s useful to speak up. There are first aid training and such to learn to recognize the symptoms for serious, acute illness such as heart attack and stroke, as well as risks for suicide. (I haven’t heard about jaundice before, maybe there are trainings about that too?). I think it’s definitely worth the risk to say something if you think someone have a life-threatening medical problem, and you don’t need to be 100 % sure to ask them if they are okay and offer to call the emergency service or a ride to the doctor.

    However, most times people make comments about other people’s appearance, nothing memorable happens, and the bad effects go under the radar. Your co-worker say that everything’s fine when you comment on them looking tired or pale or red in the face, but inside they feel sad or annoyed or harrassed. You worry about your coworker being nauseous, but actually it’s morning sickness and they don’t want to announce their pregnancy yet. Or they have symptoms from a new medicine that takes a while to get used too, and they don’t want to talk about it. In a way, it’s like playing at the casino. The win could be great, if there’s actually something dangerous going on, and the losses are smaller but adds up for every comment and could make someone feel unwelcome at your company or lower their life quality.

  108. Fikly*

    So here’s where I fall on this.

    I have a lot of very rare health issues. I belong to communities of people with those issues. There are some people in them who feel it’s totally fine to go up to perfect strangers they suspect have the same condition (and don’t know) and tell them this. That’s not ok. And it wouldn’t be ok at work either.

    However, what I do think is ok, is to go up to a coworker and ask if they’re feeling ok. And if they continue the conversation by wanting to know why you are asking, describe a symptom, rather than an assumed diagnosis. I don’t feel like that’s an overstep, and it could save a life. But only if they continue the conversation. They have to consent to it.

  109. Malarkey01*

    OHHH I have experience with this. We had a newer employee (about a month) and I was sitting behind him in a meeting and noticed a very bad mole on his neck. Normally I would never comment on someone’s body, but my sister had gone through something similar. I found time to quietly go up to him at his desk and said I’m so sorry to be intrusive but I just wanted to mention that you have a mole on the back of your neck that I would have a doctor examine if you haven’t already. He gave me a weird look and I said sorry that was so awkward but I wasn’t sure if you were aware, and then transitioned to anyway back to work.

    He came over to me a week later and thanked me for saying something. He saw a doctor and they removed it right away and said it was a good thing they caught it. I said think nothing of it, and we never discussed it again, BUT we have been the best of coworkers ever since then. So my vote is find a way to say something, even if you couch it as a half apology but I just wanted to mention. Then let it go. I’d rather have the regret of overstepping (if done sensitively) than the regret of saying nothing and having a bad outcome.

  110. Ben Kolt*

    I had a very similar incident like this with a person I knew from the gym. I noticed that he was jaundiced as he walked away from me toward the shower.
    I hesitated for about an hour, called his daughter, who, with a nurse friend visited him and had him hospitalized immediately. He was diagnosed with liver cancer. He had noticed some symptoms, but like most adult males (of which I am one), he assumed he was immortal. He was told that without hospitalization, he would have been dead within 3 days. He lived another year.

    I will forever be of the mind, “If you see something, say something.”
    I would much rather be wrong, than see someone die too soon.

  111. DefinitelySaySomething*

    I think if you see a big change, you should speak up- or a gradual one that is cumulatively huge.

    My dad has a congenital heart valve defect that caused him to nearly die and need a replacement in his 50s. It’s genetic but can’t be tested for until 30s/40s.

    When I was a very independent 17, I nearly lived with my best friend, who noticed that I had been slowly getting really pale and weak and practically dragged me to a doctor.

    I had dangerously low iron and needed a bunch of infusions- and the lack of oxygen to the heart caused by the cells’ impaired capacity puts a big strain on it!

    If I DO have my dad’s heart condition, she saved my life, and if I don’t, well, quality still goes way up!

  112. Jamie*

    I feel like this is one of those situations where you can get HR involved. We have training and experience in this area and can broach the subject privately and in a way that will lessen the embarrassment. Ideally you’d ask someone close to Joe to have the “is everything ok?” conversation and point out the difference in appearance. However, it doesn’t seem like there was someone in the office who he was particularly lose to. So in that case I would say go to HR if you are ever uncomfortable bringing up a change in appearance. I once had a similar situation with an employee who was not the friendliest. He started coming in to work with dirty clothes and messed up hair. He had noticeably lost a lot of weight as well and had began offering to sell off possessions to co-workers. As it had turned out, he was having strong thoughts of suicide. He was convinced to immediately seek help and was driven to the nearest ER where he had a long stay in a mental health treatment program. It is scary to me to think what could have happened if his co-workers would have minded their own business.

  113. Heat's Kitchen*

    I think this is a good case for only mention something if you have a good, somewhat personal/friendly relationship AND you’re at the same level. A boss/HR shouldn’t ask for fears of discrimination (on both sides). But a friend saying, “you seem unusually tired”, “you’ve been coughing an awful lot”, etc. I wouldn’t think of as weird.

  114. LavaLamp*

    If somebody who had a healthy skin tone suddenly started looking yellow or orange, I’d say something.

    I was barely 21 when I had a major life threatening event that I was trying to power through. I got lucky that my coworkers checked on me. Having emergency surgery was not on my list of things to do, but had people not been concerned and said, Hey, LavaLamp you look like you’re about to pass out; allowed me to realize that no. No i was not okay, could someone please go find my dad (worked at the same place) and let Manager know I’m headed to the doctor.

  115. SpaceNovice*

    You should definitely err on the side of caution and mention it. And if not directly you, then someone else that the person is friendly with.

    My great-grandfather died because no one at work realized his symptoms meant a heart attack, even the doctor they had on staff. However, I’ve been responsible for sending numerous friends, family, and even a couple of coworkers to the doctor and even the hospital when they were on the fence. As long as you’re respectful and genuine in your concern without being “pushy” about it and immediately agree to drop the subject if they’re really adamant about it, there’s nothing wrong about it. Sudden changes usually mean something is wrong.

  116. Alice's Tree*

    I intermittently use a cane and I know how annoying it is when everyone you pass in the hall has to ask “What happened?” This is not that. In fact, this is not a workplace issue at all; it’s a human decency issue. If you see someone with a symptom that could indicate a life-threatening illness, you mention it. If I had to have 50 people ask me “Hey, you have jaundice. Have you been checked out?” I’d rather that than organ failure.

  117. Curmudgeon in California*

    I had a boss that had a heart attack, at work. I hadn’t known the signs. He survived, but it was still scary.

    There are things that I will speak up on, even to strangers: Heart attack symptoms, stroke symptoms, and jaundice. Even if it’s a chronic condition, those all have acute symptoms that the person themself just won’t notice – primarily due to the fact that they are having a health emergency!

    If I notice that a male always wears a sweater in a normal (70 – 72) temperature office, I will take them aside and asked if they’ve seen a doctor lately – because that was one of the early symptoms of cardiac problems in my former boss. I won’t keep bringing it up, just the once. If things change suddenly, I’ll bring it up too.

    If I notice someone suddenly profusely sweating in a normal temperature office, I’d ask if they were feeling ok, because that can be a symptom of a serious problem. If it’s from medication or too spicy food, they’ll tell me.

    But if I noticed a problem and didn’t say anything, and they subsequently died? I would beat my self up with guilt for years.

    My religion doesn’t make me “my brother’s keeper”, but my humanity has me caring about the people I work with.

  118. Nassan*

    I’m really surprised by these answers – must be cultural (I’m in Europe). I cannot imagine that a person I work with every day (not just someone in the company but a person on my team or another close colleague) looks off and I ignore it. It seems so rude to me, like I don’t care about them at all. I wouldn’t bother them all the time but I’d ask once: “Are you okay, you look tired/yellow/different?” And if they would look sick for weeks and just brush it off, I’d encourage them to see a doctor. If they said that they got it checked and are fine, I would leave it alone.
    Was I annoyed when I was told daily that I didn’t gain much weight during pregnancy? Slightly. But for me it’s much better to be annoying than being uncaring (I’m not saying that OP is uncaring, obviously she cares about her coworker and wants to find the right balance, just that in the context of my culture not saying anything would be pretty cold).

  119. Laura H.*

    Caveat of I have a disability, but I kinda have the same issues when I’m with other people who have disabilities! I always err on the side of asking “Do you need help?” I don’t want to be branded an insensitive jerk, but I’d rather ask and get told “This is my normal, chillax.” than not ask and find out later that they DID need help and I could have gotten someone to do so.

    Concern can be expressed tactfully. But once you ask and get told something to the effect of all good, you do need to stop.

    You can’t win, but I know I appreciate concern when it’s expressed well!

  120. Waving not Drowning (no longer Drowning not Waving)*

    I’ve been in the position of having to ask a workmate to check their blood sugar levels on a regular basis. He developed Type 2 diabetes, and was having trouble recognising hypos/hypers. I’d supported a child at camp with Type 1, so could recognise the signs (slurring words was the big one). I’d ask him to check his bloods, and say why. I did have to get blunt with him a few times though where he said he was ok. It did make me feel very uncomfortable being in that position though, that I was somehow crossing a line, but, I did it because if I didn’t, there were serious health implications. I had worked with him for a few years at that point.

    Another instance where I should have spoken up was a workmate having memory issues, we’d brushed it aside, thinking she just wasn’t reading instructions correctly (she had a longstanding habit of doing that), and it turned out she had a brain tumor. We didn’t speak up as we knew our manager didn’t like her and was looking for a reason to put her on a PIP (toxic micromanager!).

    On the other hand, I am so over people coming up to me and saying I look tired. I am a pretty upbeat person, but, I do have a lot on my plate, both personally and professionally, and it gets wearing after a while, particularly when they say it as they are offloading more of their work onto me…..

    1. Rollergirl09*

      A few years ago I developed a life threatening illness. I was shaking, sweaty, and nauseous at work. I attributed it to a side effect of a new medication I was taking. Then my coworker came over and said, “Hey, have you looked in the mirror today? You’re looking a little wide-eyed.” I went to the restroom immediately to inspect and sure enough my pupils were completely dilated to the point where there was no blue left. I called my doctor’s office and explained what was happening and they said, “Get to the nearest emergency room right now.” That sufficiently freaked me out, but they caught it in time to not have any long term effects. If my coworker hadn’t spoken up I would’ve waited several days to get it checked out and it could have been too late. She essentially saved my life.

  121. CB*

    I don’t think there’s one right answer to this. My mom told me a story once about a teacher at her school who had a tumor behind his eye, and his eye was literally popping out. But he didn’t notice! Luckily, he taught grade school and the kids told him, and he was able to get treatment. Kids tell it like it is, and they potentially saved his life. Adults might have felt awkward saying anything.

    On the other hand, I hate unsolicited advice about a clearly obvious medical situation. I have an extremely short child (seeing specialists and being treated), and, at least when she was very young many people felt the need to tell me how short she was, and give advice about how she could grow faster (more milk, apparently). That was extremely annoying.
    I think I would probably stay quiet if I noticed anything about a co-worker, but I do think it can save lives in certain cases. I think it’s best done by those employees who are already very blunt about things. People are much less likely to take offense if the person is always very upfront.

  122. Danger Mouse*

    I think you have to consider the relationship and the medical issue together on whether you would say anything. My department is small, we all get along well and have the easy going comradery that if someone came in with something that has clearly been treated but not ongoing eg broken leg, it is normal to ask how it happened. I would also comment/offer help if they were bright yellow or started a nosebleed mid conversation (that one has happened). However, I would only intervene/comment to an unknown coworker from another department in much the same circumstances that I would to a stranger on the street. If they faint or have a nosebleed in front of me, of course I will help them but I am not going to comment on issues that don’t need immediate assistance. Jaundice is a tricky one. It would have to be pretty bad for me to comment but I also think I might chicken out as I would feel pretty uncomfortable diagnosing a stranger.

    This obviously excludes ongoing issues. A coworker’s medication has extreme side effects including swelling and fainting. I do not comment whenever she is looking puffy although obviously I would help if she was woozy/unconscious. I should make it clear I do not feel responsible for her safety and welfare; if I walk past and something happens to be wrong, I will help. But I don’t feel I have to check on her specifically or treat her with kid gloves etc. I don’t think people should have to disclose medical illnesses but it it does make it easier not to blunder if someone says I have a condition that flares up occasionally and when it does, XYZ happens. If I see XYZ, I know it is standard stuff and they are actually okay.

  123. fhqwhgads*

    I think the deciding factor really ought to be: can I think of a probable cause of the symptom I’m observing that might make this a life or death situation, even if the chances are small?
    If so, bring it up, even if it’s awkward.
    If not, more likely not to say something.

    Now that might mean someone who doesn’t know the potential seriousness of jaundice might not say anything, and that’s OK because it’s not any one bystander’s responsibility to monitor others’ health. We’re not doctors and we’re not mind readers. BUT in the entire population of any one person’s coworkers, probably SOMEONE realizes that -hey this might be very serious- and that person who does realize that does have the ethical responsibility, absent other information to the contrary, to ask the person if they’re OK or in some other way clue them in that maybe they didn’t notice about themselves but this change has happened and it might be worth checking out.

    If it’s a known condition, fine, they can say they’ve got a handle on it and thanks for the concern. And even if it might be frustrating if that happens a few times, most reasonable people are going to moreso appreciate that someone wanted to make sure they don’t die, and wasn’t trying to annoy them. (If it were the same person repeatedly asking after being told it’s under control that’s a totally different circumstance.)

    But if the possible medical issue isn’t something you suspect of being Very Serious, it’s much more reasonable (and probably advisable) to take a stance of not my business. If you have an otherwise close-ish relationship, then you can judge accordingly for the circumstance, but as a broad rule for a coworker, I’d draw the line at “Am I worried they might die?” if yes, speak, if no, no.

  124. Retail not Retail*

    My coworker broke her middle toe in january and came back too soon and we all told her she did! She had surgery Friday to rebreak it and set it. “I’ll be back next week!” Please.

    I have another coworker who came back from medical leave and explained his limitations and I worked with him on them and tried to balance tasks so he’d do the least aggravating for his healing. But then he kept moaning, groaning, once almost screaming and insisted he was fine!

    Anyway he cut himself real bad on something and it was bad and i was like we are cutting this short, you are going back to first aid, and he made fun of me. Did it the next time too! This last time though, my mom’s finger had just been infected so I was like hmm okay whatever.

    All that to say… if you’re lucky you get along with these people you spend 40 hours a week with. They notice if you turn colors or if you’re coughing weirdly. We also watch each other for heat exhaustion which doesn’t quite apply in most of y’all’s experiences but yes being nosy is important. “You’re not sweating!” “I’m not hot but I got a killer headache.”

  125. AnonRN*

    I recently worked a shift on a different unit than my own (hospital; I’m an RN). I noticed another RN who looked very flushed. I had never worked with her before and I got the impression she was pretty new. I helped her do something with her patient and then we were chatting in the hall and she mentioned she was really tired. I chose to pick up on that and ask “you look sort of flushed, is that normal for you?” She then told me she didn’t feel well but was afraid to call in because she was low on time. Being new, she didn’t know that her manager could help her use other accruals to cover sick leave if needed. So, I can’t say I saved her life or anything, and nurses tend to be nosy/willing to talk about their personal health because of what we do everyday anyway, but in this case the gamble I took on making an observation to a near-stranger seemed to have helped.

  126. Sahra*

    I think this is something that depends on your relationship. If you have a fairly close relationship and it is something where knowing about it would help them, I think it can be worth it to say something. The key is to be thoughtful in how you do it. Find a way to talk to them alone and acknowledge the awkwardness and after mentioning it, say that you weren’t sure whether to mention it and you won’t bring it up again unless asked, but you just felt better mentioning it just in case. Their response will help you calibrate future things. Then just be normal after that. And if it’s something where waiting a few days to see if it goes away on its own is not a big risk, that can be worth it. And also look for any signals that the person is trying not to draw attention to it.

    This is one of those things where the more they have known you to be nice and not particularly nosy, the more you can say. I think this is a situation where frankly usually the right call might be to not say anything. But mostly people understand stuff like this is awkward sometimes.

  127. So lucky*

    As someone who had liver failure and had a transplant, I would definitely mention something significant like your eyes/skin is yellow.
    The confusion from ammonia build up and exhaustion may impact someone’s ability to think clearly.

  128. Not Rebee*

    I think “Are you feeling okay?” is the perfect thing for it. If they’re already inundated then they can brush it off but if they’re honestly clueless you can go “cool I was just wondering since you’re yellow right now” and move on. Their reaction will tell you if you’re staying moved on or if you’re all freaking out now

  129. shinychariot*

    I think I would likely inform a manager so they could tackle the issue unless it was something more immediate like a heart attack or stroke.

  130. Marna*

    If I saw a sudden change in a co-worker I would err on the side of saying something–calmly, non-inquisitively and in private, but I’d say something.

    Should we be responsible for monitoring our co-workers’ health? Not in general, no. But, and this is what tips it over for me, if someone has a sudden appearance or behaviour change, and it may be serious, *it may also be affecting their cognitive abilities*.

    Which is to say, sometimes sick people don’t know how sick they are because being sick is making them bad at paying attention to their bodies and noticing the weirdness. They think they’re “a bit tired” and they’re walking into the furniture and not noticing.

    Many workplaces in Canada have designated and trained volunteer first aid people in each department, which I think is a splendid policy and quite cheap–you find the employee who’s up for it, you pay for the training and pay them for their attendance if they’re hourly, you buy the kit, your workplace is now safer–and if you have one of those I’d take it to them and let them do it as that would probably feel less intrusive and more “asking these questions sometimes is part of what I do”

  131. LawBird*

    It’s polite to not discuss or ask about these private matters, but usually what I do (since people who seem visibly unwell are coming into work) is ask “are you ok?” If they say yes, I leave them alone and change the subject. If they say “Why?” I may say “oh you were sniffling, looking jaundiced, etc.”. Now, I don’t ask this when its a random cough or sneeze though, but only if they especially miserable or unusual.

  132. OP*

    Thank you to everyone who commented! I’m sorry it’s taken me a few days – I had the flu this week.

    This was a really interesting discussion. I had never seen someone with jaundice before, so like other commentators, I wasn’t entirely sure how serious of an issue it could be. Another caveat to add is that Joe is a POC and I’m white. He naturally has a sallowness to his skin tone, and when it increased, I just wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was normal or something else. What I definitely knew was not normal was the whites of his eyes, which had also turned bright yellow.

    The rest of the team did not discuss Joe’s jaundice at all until after our other colleague asked him about his face and he brought it up. That’s when we learned that most of us had noticed something but hadn’t said anything. Joe was ready to believe it was just dehydration and eating too much cheese (another colleague had suggested this to him), but a few of us disagreed with that theory and encouraged him to see a doctor to find out for sure. He later asked me privately if I thought he should see a doctor, and I told him that I did, if only because sometimes jaundice can indicate something wrong with the liver and it would be good to rule that out.

    Someone mentioned that him being bad a life skills could be a red flag. Joe is young and the only son (and youngest child) of a large family. He told me one of the reasons he moved out here was to develop more independence, so he’s aware that he has some things to work on. It’s usually stuff like, the first time he made a tuna sandwich, he didn’t realize you had to drain the tuna can.

    He’s been a lot better since he got back. He hadn’t been eating much before all of this (which was something others in the office had noticed), and apparently that was also related to the same condition that caused the jaundice. The yellow tone is slowly fading, he’s eating, and just generally has a lot more energy.

  133. stella*

    I abruptly came down with preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome during my first pregnancy, before I went out on maternity leave. I was at work one day, hospitalized that night, and never returned due to health concerns with my preemie. A few colleagues and my supervisor visited me in the hospital, and they all mentioned that they noticed I was really swollen and out of it on my last day (aka kidney failure and high blood pressure). I was initially a little annoyed that no one said anything, but I have concluded that it was totally understandable for them to keep their mouths shut. They were all men, I was pregnant and much younger than them, and they were above me in the chain of command. If they were mistaken and I was just going through normal pregnancy changes, they could have really offended me or even run into trouble with HR.

  134. LemonLime*

    I had a friend whom I had not seen for a few weeks and when I saw him in the hallway at work noticed he looked ‘off’- just ‘off’ but didnt say anything out of awkwardness and no real definitive symptom other than ‘you look off’. Anyway a few days later he was rushed by ambulance from work and nearly died from acute pancreatitis. I regret to this day not mentioning it to him- it might have been the right words to put together with inner thoughts of his own. Like ‘ yeah actually I’ve been waking up with the sweats and really don’t feel fine.’ He lived but it was touch and go for WEEKS in the ICU.
    I have sworn if I ever find myself in anything similar I will speak up. The regret afterwards is real. I didn’t like the feeling that I had let ‘awkwardness’ prevent me from speaking up. Everyone wants to think they’d run into a burning building to save lives- why not gird yourself to being willing to be awkward to save a life?

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