Cancer at Work: An Interview With Barbara Wilson
The founder of Working With Cancer joins us for the first in a series of articles about Cancer in the Workplace.
Whether you’re supporting an employee through cancer at work. Or you’re a cancer patient struggling to get the support you need. Either way, this Q and A with Barbara Wilson will help you out. Read on for a glimpse into Barbara’s personal experience with breast cancer. Find out where companies are falling short of supporting employees. Discover what you need to do if you’re feeling unsupported at work. And learn what’s unacceptable for Barbara in a modern and civilised society.
In a 2013 interview about cancer at work, you expressed amazement at “the lack of understanding there is about cancer. And what the impact is on individuals”. How would you say this has improved in the last 4 years? And what do you feel still needs to change?
There’s greater awareness and understanding about cancer at work. More organisations are aware of the difficulties people face. But many organisations don’t appreciate that recovery isn’t straightforward or quick. They also tend to rely on generic return to work policies. And these are inappropriate when it comes to supporting people recovering from cancer. A lot still depends on how far the local line manager is prepared to support an employee. And whether they’ll bend rules if need be about leave or sick pay.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and given the all clear in 2010. What did you learn about yourself through treatment and recovery?
I learned that I wasn’t immortal or superhuman! And also that life is precious and so it’s important to make the best of it. That doesn’t actually mean counting off things on your bucket list. Or living each day as if it’s your last. It’s about appreciating what you have, family, friends and the sheer joy of being alive.
“Life is precious. It’s about appreciating what you have, family, friends and the sheer joy of being alive.”
It’s a common misperception that people in remission want more family time or to travel the world. What reasons do your clients share with you for wanting to get back to work?
Yes. Before I had cancer, I remember asking a terminally ill employee why she still wanted to work. And she worked until a fortnight before her death. The simple answer is that it’s about feeling normal. Using your brain. Being with friends and colleagues rather than on your own. And losing yourself in your work. There are also financial reasons. But typically – and I can say this based on my own experience – it’s about being ‘you’ again rather than a cancer patient.
“I remember asking a terminally ill employee why she still wanted to work. And she worked until a fortnight before her death. Typically – and I can say this based on my own experience – it’s about being ‘you’ again rather than a cancer patient.”
You share tips for employers and HR professionals in this article for Macmillan. And you set out how to support a colleague during and after cancer treatment. What would you say to an employee who isn’t feeling supported by their employer or colleagues in this way?
In my experience there are two main reasons why people often aren’t supported.
1. Bosses and colleagues don’t understand the full impact of cancer treatment. They won’t understand what fatigue is or chemo brain or peripheral neuropathy. So they often expect people to get ‘back to normal’ work after 6 to 8 weeks. But recovery can take many months. This isn’t helped by the person often looking fit and well.
2. People don’t like talking about cancer at work. They feel awkward. And as a result often decide to say nothing. We advise people to be open from the outset. To understand their right to reasonable adjustments. And their responsibility to update their employer about their recovery and support needs. Employees recovering from cancer often have to take the lead. They have to guide their colleagues about the specific help they need. You can’t expect others to do it for you. It sounds wrong but that’s how it is.
“Bosses and colleagues often expect people to get ‘back to normal’ work after 6 to 8 weeks. But recovery can take many months. “
More than 100,000 people had to wait more than 2 weeks to see a cancer specialist in the UK last year. 25,153 had to wait more than 62 days to start treatment. What’s your reaction to these statistics?
It’s shocking. The worry for patients and their families during this period is totally debilitating. And on top of this it means that the cancer is growing unchecked. Where the cancer is aggressive, the delay may threaten lives. And it will certainly add to the overall costs of care. We really have to address this. It’s just not acceptable in a modern and civilised society.
“The worry for patients and their families during this period is totally debilitating. We really have to address this.”
Finally, can you tell us more about Working With Cancer?
Working With Cancer is a social enterprise and was established in June 2014. We support people affected by cancer to lead fulfilling and rewarding working lives. That means helping people to successfully return to work or remain in work. Or sometimes it’s about helping people to find work – depending on their personal needs. We work with corporates, charities and other third sector organisations to support people throughout the UK.
We coach people diagnosed with cancer to re-establish their working lives. And we train employers to understand how to manage work and cancer. We’ll advise teams about how to support a colleague affected by cancer. And we help carers juggle work whilst supporting their loved ones. Working With Cancer also helps organisations to update or improve their policies.
Over to you
If you’re an employer wanting to understand how to stand by your employees and their families when they need you most, click here to learn more about the support and benefits available from HSC. If you’re an employee concerned about the potential future impact of cancer on you and your loved ones, click here to learn more about our annual health and wellbeing benefit, Cancer Connect.
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About Barbara Wilson
Barbara Wilson is a senior HR professional with almost 40 years’ experience. Roles include Group Head of Strategic HR at Catlin Group Ltd. Deputy Head of HR at Schroders Investment Management. And Chief of Staff to the Group HR Director at Barclays. After a breast cancer diagnosis, Barbara launched Working With Cancer. It’s a Social Enterprise providing coaching, training and consultancy to employers, employees, carers and health professionals.