How can you support your employees working with cancer? Practical tips

Cancer woman leading normal life, working at office

More needs to be done at work to support employees with cancer, was the main takeaway of this article, which explores the reasons for stigma behind the illness and lack of support. As a follow up, this feature offers employers practical suggestions for how they can better help.

Remember everyone’s experience is individual

“So support needs to be individual,” says Julie Graham, Cancer Campaigner and HR Consultant.

She continues:

“Always ask what the employee wants to happen. Do not force leave on someone that might want to keep working. When you get diagnosed with cancer, you can lose your identity, so being able to work when you can [for some] is vital.”

In cancer specialist Dr Hugo De La Pena’s experience, “only a minority of patients of working age want to be signed off completely. There may be periods of time when they have to take time off. However most want as much normality in their lives as possible.”

Is it better to be open or private about a diagnosis at work?

For Graham, when she disclosed her cancer diagnosis, she wanted to have one point of contact because she felt “there’s nothing worse than thinking everyone knows your business or that you may have to repeat yourself”.

For others, they prefer to be very open about their experience, and may even want to share their story internally.

Again, the best thing to do rather than slavishly following a blanket procedure or policy, is to be guided by what the individual would like.

Questions to ask someone who’s just revealed a cancer diagnosis to you as their line manager

According to cancer specialist Dr Hugo De La Pena, ask:

Do they want it to be kept confidential?

Do they want to tell their colleagues themselves?

Do they want an internal announcement to be made?

What would help them the most?

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Ask them about their treatment plan.

“This will help you to plan and help them,” he says. “Our most recent treatments are based on immunotherapy and clever targeted drugs (called precision medicine) so often work can continue almost as normal. This may help you to plan around their role.”

Don’t leave someone out of meetings/emails because you think this is the kindest thing to do

This relates to the previous point – for some people, being left out of meetings or emails could be really detrimental to their sense of self returning to work, for others it’ll be a welcome relief. For Jen Fisher, Human Sustainablity Leader, Deloitte US, it was the former:

“I was very clear with people. I told them ‘don’t not include me on things, or invite me to things because you think you’re being nice, let me tell you what I need!’ For me, being left out made me feel worse, not better.”

Again, in Dr La Pena’s experience, the more normality, the better:

“Ensure these employees are still invited to things, out of hours social events, don’t let ‘pity’ allow them to be excluded and, if in doubt, ask. I encourage all my patients to carry on with life by going to the cinema, theatre, restaurants, weddings, holidays, etc.”

Be flexible and allow employees returning after cancer to rest when they need to

For Fisher, she took time off when she needed it, especially after chemotherapy treatment. She found an effective way to do this was, when she was exhausted, to block out ‘nap time’ in her diary for all her colleagues to see, so she wouldn’t be disturbed.

If there’s any silver lining to Fisher’s experience, it’s that cancer has taught her the importance of boundaries and speaking up for herself, which she urges others working with cancer to do:

“It’s changed my view of communicating my boundaries and needs in order to take care of myself. I used to always push back doctor’s appointments because work popped up – but now, when I have a doctor’s appointment, the President of the United States could ask me for a meeting and the answer would be no! My hope is that when leaders are open and also set boundaries to take care of themselves, it empowers other people to do the same.

Be mindful of how nerve wracking it can be returning to work after cancer treatment

“Ensuring that the employee is eased back into their role is key,” says Bertrand Stern-Gillet, CEO at Health Assured. He suggests holding a return-to-work meeting to find out what they are, and aren’t, able to do.

“Identify any adjustments to their role of working environment, and update them on any changes that have happened in the business whilst they have been absent,” he says, adding that some forms of cancer treatment can leave people more vulnerable to infection, which also has to be taken into account.

Remember to support mental as well as physical health

As Stern-Gillet says, cancer is not just about gruelling physical effects, it also takes a steep mental toll “that should not be underestimated” and that “often, this can be longer-lasting and more difficult than the physical effects”.

He adds that having an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in place to offer professional mental wellbeing support is beneficial for all parties, including family members, due to the specialised and complicated nature of a cancer diagnosis.

Listen with kindness and compassion

“Remember, nobody chooses or has any control of a cancer diagnosis at any point in their life. The most important part is to just be there for your employee,” says Nahar Khalisadar, Lead Clinical Nurse Specialist – Women’s Health. “They will be much more productive if you listen to them and support them. Kindness and compassion goes a long way in showing your support to your employees.”

Consider partnering with experts to educate your workforce

One way to simplify the process of raising awareness of cancer at work and getting the conversation going, is to bring in a specialist partner to educate your employees. Boutros Bear is one such company that provides employers with online e-learning videos.

These provide information on what it’s like for someone to go through the cancer journey and return to the workplace, explaining clearly the legal and mortal responsiblities of t he employer, line managers and colleagues.

“These training videos have been recorded by [former BBC newsreader] Kate Silverton and are designed to ensure the workplace has a profound understanding of how best to support a colleague with cancer,” says Founder Sheila Kissane-Marshall, who created the programme on the back of her own experience of cancer at work.

The company also provides 12 week ‘return to work’ programmes for employees experiencing cancer, which include full physical and mental rehabilitation. Charities like MacMillan also provide online webinars to help employees understand how to best support their employees, and other content to help HR and line managers in feeling more confident dealing with cancer in the workplace.

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