Wellbeing | How to support employees affected by cancer

How to support employees affected by cancer

We’ve all been touched by cancer in our lives – in fact, more than 700,000 people of working age are living with a cancer diagnosis. And in these times, it can be difficult to know what to say and do.

According to international research by Macmillan, 6 in 10 people with cancer now return to work. This trend means that colleagues, managers and employers are also increasingly likely to face cancer in the workplace.

In this article, we’ll provide a summary of some of the steps you can take to support an employee who has been diagnosed with cancer.

The role of employers when supporting people with cancer

Employers play a pivotal role in supporting people with cancer and their carers, but as an employer or line manager, you may not always feel confident about how best to support an employee who is affected. To start with, cancer is covered by the Equality Act 2010 and understanding best practice will help you to meet your obligations under this legislation, as well as give you some direction if you’re unsure.

When the employee receives the diagnosis

As soon as you become aware that an employee or their loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, encourage them to have a confidential discussion with their line manager, HR manager or occupational health manager (as appropriate within your organisation).

Let your employee take the lead by telling you what has happened. When it’s time for you to move the conversation on, here are some points you could ask about:

  • How they’re feeling, emotionally and physically.

  • Whether they wish colleagues to be informed, and what information should be shared.

  • What sort of time off they might need for medical appointments and during treatment (they may not know at this point – it’s often a case of seeing how things go).

You can also offer information about:

  • The options for time off.

  • Organisational policies on flexible working, work adjustment and return-to-work after sick leave.

  • Their rights under the Equality Act 2010, which covers people with a cancer diagnosis, and other relevant laws such as carers’ legislation.

  • Any services your organisation offers to help them (for example, an employee assistance programme that provides counselling). If your organisation has access to a welfare officer or occupational health expert, it could be helpful to involve them at an early stage if the employee wants their help.

Make sure you close the meeting with an assurance that your employee’s work is valued and that your door is always open if they need your assistance. Agree how you will keep the lines of communication open, and set a date for the next meeting so you can keep on top of the situation.

Telling colleagues

It’s important that communication with colleagues, clients and customers is not haphazard or left to chance. Agree a communication plan with your employee early on, including what you will, and will not mention to others. They may not wish to tell others they are affected by cancer, and this must be your employee’s decision. However, colleagues may be more understanding about absences, changes in work arrangements and new assignments if they know what is happening.

Options for time off

If your employee hears that they or a loved one has a cancer diagnosis, they may need some time off to be with their family before coming back in to work.

Agreeing some time off work will be one of your employee’s most pressing needs. They should try to give you advance notice so you can arrange cover, but sometimes the unexpected occurs and this may not be possible. People who are having tests, receiving treatment and recovering from cancer will need to attend medical appointments. They may need to stay in hospital, for example if they’re having surgery. They may also benefit from receiving complementary therapies.

Your organisation should have clear policies about sickness leave – this is an essential part of the contract of employment. Your sickness leave policy should include information on how time off for medical appointments will be dealt with.

Keeping in touch

People often feel ‘out of touch’ with work during their absence. It’s important to maintain appropriate contact with your employee during periods of sick leave. It will remind them that they’re valued, however handle communication carefully because there is a risk that your employee might feel you are pressuring them to return too soon. You should discuss your organisation’s sickness absence policy with your employee. It’s helpful to clarify responsibilities on both sides. If possible, discuss arrangements with your employee prior to their absence.

Returning to work

When to return

The simplest and easiest way you can help staff members with cancer is to plan their return-to-work carefully with them. Reasonable adjustments such as flexible working arrangements and a phased return-to-work can ease the transition back to work when people are still dealing with the physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment. The health of your employees is vital to the health of your business and a successful return to-work after cancer is in everyone’s interests.

Flexible options for returning

Return-to-work planning should be taken with a constructive approach, where both you and your employee discuss and agree the best way forward. Cancer can be unpredictable so plans should be flexible, allowing for changes along the way.

The possibility of flexible working and a gradual, phased return-to-work are potentially helpful ways of easing someone back into the workplace. It’s important to involve the employee with cancer in a genuine dialogue and a joint decision-making process about their return-to-work.

On their first week back

For a successful return-to-work, you can try these specific steps:

  • Welcome them back. Be there on their first day, or failing that, make sure you phone in. Make sure the rest of the team are expecting them, adding to the welcome.

  • Meet at the start of the day to discuss their work plan and handover arrangements. This is another opportunity to check for concerns they may have.

  • Arrange a smooth handover. Make sure they don’t come back to a mountain of work and emails. Spread the work out so everything doesn’t land on them at once. This may be the right time to start thinking about any adjustments to the individual’s role or workplace. Your employee will be reassured if they know that it may be possible to make adjustments to help them deal with specific challenges.

  • Make them feel part of the team again. Treat all your employees equally to ensure everyone knows arrangements are fair and to avoid resentment.

  • Carry out regular reviews. Agree a regular review process with your employee.

  • This way, you can monitor their progress, ensure their workload is manageable and make any necessary adjustments to help them succeed. ·

  • Make sure they are taking breaks and that they’re not over-working.

  • Consider a health and safety assessment, especially if there has been a change in duties or working arrangements. If they are working from home, you should assess this environment for health and safety too.

  • Signpost sources of information and further support.

  • You can suggest talking to an occupational health or HR professional if this is possible in your organisation. If your employee benefits plan includes access to a confidential counselling service, you can let them know this is available.

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