Cancer, work and COVID-19: Line managers and HR play a critical role


Barbara Wilson

Founder & Director

 
Read more about Barbara

‘These managers, supported and empowered by HR, helped our coachees feel part of the team; they felt reassured, valued, not forgotten, and more in control of their lives. And regaining control over your life after a cancer diagnosis is an important milestone on the road to recovery.’

Although 1 in 2 of us will receive a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime, over the last few years there have been huge improvements in cancer treatment and survival rates. Pre pandemic, Cancer survival in the UK had doubled in the last 40 years. A common misconception is to treat five-year survival as the point of 'cure'. As things stand, survival continues to fall beyond five years after diagnosis for many cancer types. So, for patients diagnosed with all cancers combined during 2010-2011 in England and Wales, 46% of men and 54% of women are predicted to survive their cancer for ten years or more.

How things change! As a result of the pandemic, there are an estimated 33,000 people in the UK who should have started treatment, but have not yet done so because of the disruption from Covid-19. One study has estimated between 7,000 to 18,000 excess cancer deaths, and there will be many more to come.

And looking beyond those statistics, those patients who are being seen are currently having to endure the stress of attending diagnostic tests, biopsies and scans, chemo and radiotherapy alone. On top of this, for all those who are working, during these uncertain times there is the stress of coping with their work as well as their cancer. The mental health burden can be immense and overwhelming both for those with cancer and their families.

A significant part of our service involves working with organisations of all shapes and sizes to coach employees affected by cancer to make a successful return to work. At the same time, we support their line manager and HR with unlimited information and advice. This element of our service is unique and we do it because research shows that line managers can make the biggest difference as to whether someone returns to work successfully.

So, what insights have we gained about coping with cancer and work during this pandemic? As one might expect, some people have had a good lockdown, but many have not and the way their employer or colleagues have treated them has played a large part in this.

 

Key lessons from lockdown

1. Line managers need to be far more proactive in keeping in touch with those of their employees with cancer

We are social creatures. Management text books and training do not cover home working – yet – so it’s not enough for HR teams to issue guidelines describing good practice; managers need to put that good practice into effect. Essentially, they need to provide regular, frequent, timely and appropriate support to all their employees working from home particularly those with long term, chronic conditions like cancer. This is not about checking up on employees but showing interest, concern, reassurance and encouragement. You cannot assume that working from home makes life easier or that no news is good news. What is more, if some people are going into work, it’s particularly important for managers to keep in touch with those working from home more than ever, as many of them may feel isolated and potentially be excluded, wittingly or unwittingly, from team activities.

 

2. Get to know your employees a lot better

For those continuing to work from home, a question for HR Business Partners and line managers: how far do you understand the circumstances of individual employees, particularly those with a cancer diagnosis or other severe illness? Have you contacted them in the last two weeks? Note point 1 above. What further help can you provide them in terms of flexible hours, revised duties, home working equipment, coaching, counselling or other reasonable adjustments to make their lives easier. Please remember Access to Work can help fund equipment and other adjustments like our job coaching.

[And a message to anyone working from home – whether you have cancer or not - if your boss doesn’t call you, a passive approach is not a solution. Take the initiative and contact them; if need be suggesting and arranging regular catch up calls.].

3. Don’t ‘watch and wait’ assuming people are ok

For some people, especially those who live alone and were shielding, there has been a ‘perfect storm’ of health, life and work problems to cope with. A double lockdown is doubly tough. If you are the colleague or manager of someone in this or a similar position, please keep in touch even more, don’t ‘watch and wait’ (to borrow a term used in cancer treatment).

Some of our coachees had a good lockdown and it’s because their managers followed good practice. For example, they:

  1. Had regular check-ins with them to see how they were doing
  2. Adopted a partnership approach:
    • Provided office equipment at home
    • Allowed flexible working hours
    • Ensured they were not being overloaded.
    • Set up short weekly team meetings
    • Did not make them feel guilty for being at home when others were in the office and allowed to go in for a day or two every week or fortnight if they wished to.
    • And showed empathy and kindness towards their employee
  3. Recognised that their employee could be just as productive at home, for example, they were not having to deal with a long and tiring commute each day so could get more done from home than in the office. But at the same time, they recognised that a phased return to work, making adjustments applies as much to home as to office working.

The common theme in all of the above is that these managers, supported and empowered by HR, helped our coachees feel part of the team; they felt reassured, valued, not forgotten, and more in control of their lives. And regaining control over your life after a cancer diagnosis is an important milestone on the road to recovery.

Every two minutes someone is diagnosed with cancer and you can expect the incidence of cancer in the workplace to increase. It’s essential that you and your managers are knowledgeable, equipped, and ready to respond. Click the button below to find out more about Working with Cancer.

For employers | For people affected by cancer | For health professionals | For cancer charities and social enterprises

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