Supporting employees affected by cancer may have moved up the workplace agenda.
But despite the numbers of people affected and increased awareness, employers still have a long way to go. Research has revealed that many worry about job security, financial stability and telling their employer they have cancer. All this at a time when getting better should be the main priority.
If you’re managing someone with cancer, these bite-size tips are designed to help.
So you can respond appropriately and with empathy. And help create the optimum environment for their recovery while minimising the impact on day-to-day business.
1. Prepare yourself for the conversation
It’s normal to feel anxious about having that initial conversation. Most managers worry about what to say or how to act. It’s OK to feel numb, shocked, sad, lost for words. Ask what support they want or need from you now. And instead of worrying about how you’ll come across, focus on listening intently to what the employee is telling you. You don’t have to have all the answers from the outset. But you do want to create an environment where your employee knows they can turn to you and be open with you.
2. Read up
There are more than 200 types of cancer. Each one has different symptoms and is diagnosed and treated in a different way. Researching the specific type of cancer your team member has not only shows you care, but also gives you a better idea of the experience they’re likely to be going through – physically, emotionally and practically.
“When you’re managing someone with cancer, you don’t have to have all the answers from the outset. But you do want to create an environment where your employee knows they can turn to you and be open with you”
3. Respect confidentiality
Your team member has a right to confidentiality. So it’s important to get clear about what will (or won’t) be shared with the wider team. If the person with cancer does decide to let others know, ask them when and how they’d prefer the message to be communicated.
4. Get to grips with your legal obligations
Cancer is defined as a disability so the person you’re managing is automatically protected from discrimination from day one of their diagnosis. Your company will be expected to put ‘reasonable adjustments’ in place to help the employee do their job before, during and after cancer treatment. No qualifying period of employment is required and it’s important to note that legislation protect job applicants, the self-employed and employees with caring responsibilities too.
“The person you’re managing is automatically protected from discrimination from day one of their diagnosis”
5. Familiarise yourself with ‘reasonable adjustments’
Reasonable adjustments may include:
- ~ Allowing time off for appointments
- ~ Permitting flexible working patterns
- ~ Granting extended sickness leave
- ~ Changing a job description
- ~ Moving your employee to a role with more suitable duties
- ~ Changing performance targets
- ~ Giving extra breaks if your employee is very tired
- ~ Adjusting your employee’s physical working environment
6. Don’t assume a cancer patient wants to work less
More people are surviving cancer than ever before. And with the right support, many are choosing to work through treatment or enjoying the benefits of returning to work once treatment has finished. When you’re managing someone with cancer, don’t assume they’ll want to take more time out than necessary. Financial considerations aside, the work itself and being around the rest of the team can bring huge benefits.
“When you’re managing someone with cancer, don’t assume they’ll want to take more time out than necessary. The work and being around the rest of the team can bring huge benefits”
7. Stay flexible and keep communication lines open
Everyone’s experience of cancer is different. And different employees will need different types of help at different times. An adjustment you make one week might not be suitable a down the line. Remaining flexible and communicating often is central to a responsible approach.
8. Refer to company guidelines and policies
Familiarise yourself with your company’s policies regarding sick leave, long-term conditions, sick pay and the rights of employees with carer responsibilities. Find out whether there are any cancer-specific policies in place. Or whether any guidelines exist to help you support a member of your team who’s affected by cancer.
9. Question the impact on others
Making sure you’re up to speed on the wider impact of the diagnosis and the support people might need is key to managing it well. Some may be reminded of a loved one’s experience with cancer. Others may resent taking on extra duties. Ongoing communication will be necessary to identify and manage any problems. Teams may also benefit from guidance on what’s helpful (and what’s not) when it comes to talking about their colleague’s cancer. It’s not uncommon for people with cancer to feel others are avoiding them. Or to be offended by comments about their health and treatment. Alleviating any awkwardness and setting clear boundaries will help everyone to support each other going forward.
10. Talk about returning to work
Ongoing communication with you is just as important when your employee takes time away from work. When they feel the time is right, talk with them about a plan for returning to work. Alongside HR, you’ll play a crucial role in identifying the type of help and support they’d find valuable before, during or after treatment.
11. Don’t equate ‘recovery’ with ‘cured’
“When an employee comes back to work, bosses and colleagues often expect them to get ‘back to normal’ work after 6 to 8 weeks,” explains Barbara Wilson. But in the context of cancer, recovery is a gradual process that can often contain setbacks and take many months. Your team member may have ongoing symptoms to manage after treatment. And they may be living with the ongoing uncertainty of whether the cancer will return. Create an environment where your employee feels they can be open with you – and meet up regularly to plan what’s feasible and adjust your expectations accordingly.
12. Remember you’re not alone in all this
Consult your own manager, HR and Occupational Health. Share your thoughts with them and ask for their input. And if your employer is a member of HSC’s Cancer Support Programme, call the Information Line. We’re at the end of the phone to offer support.