Supporting a Member of Staff Through Cancer

There are estimated to be about 900,000 people of working age living with cancer but the good news is that, with new treatments being developed all the time, survival rates have doubled in the last 30 years and 67% of employees do return to work. For many people work can play a pivotal role in their return to as normal a life as possible and, even during treatment, can provide emotional benefits, helping the individual to cope with the trials of facing cancer.

Early conversations

Be guided by the employee’s desire for disclosure. Some people naturally talk openly about their thoughts and how they feel whilst others prefer to stick to the bare facts.

Ask how he/she is, emotionally and physically, establish how much information he/she wants others to know and get an initial picture of what time off may be needed for appointments and treatment.

At this early stage the employee may simply not know what time off is required, and will, in any event, be unable to forecast his/her response to treatment, but it is useful to open up communication channels on this.

Remind him/her of any services available through the school/college (many EAP services provide access to counselling) and the role that occupational health are likely to play in providing advice on remaining in work and returning to work.

Telling others

Agree with the member of staff how much information they want communicated to colleagues and how they would like it to be conveyed (e.g. whether he/she wishes to tell people informally or would prefer someone else to break the news). If you need to inform certain people yourself, focus on the practical aspects of the illness in relation to the school/college and how they will be supported (arrangements for cover and so forth), avoiding unnecessary personal details.

Understand their entitlements

Coping financially can be a major problem during cancer treatment when an extended period of absence leaves an employee on reduced or no pay. Many absence policies make reference to, or provision for, helping employees who are absent because of cancer or other critical illness. This may include discretion to extend sick pay.

Flexible working

Understand the need for greater flexibility over working hours: cancer sufferers will need to attend appointments or have a stay in hospital whilst receiving tests, treatment or whilst recovering. Some absence will be known about in advance but some may need to be taken at short notice. The employee may also wish to reduce his/her hours on a temporary basis.

Consider what cover arrangements can be made in conjunction with the employee, being clear that any extra resources being brought in are temporary and aimed at taking the pressure off. Even with the best intentions, it is easy for an employee to feel side-lined if they find out that someone else has been brought in to pick up their work without fully understanding why.

Staying in touch during absences

As with any absence of reasonable duration, it is preferable to agree in advance with the employee what level of contact they may wish to have with their manager and colleagues.

Some individuals may prefer to have no contact at all whilst they come to terms with the diagnosis and treatment, but many will want to stay in touch with what is happening at work, in which case agree the method and regularity of contact. Even with those who do not wish to remain in contact, try to agree a provisional future review date where you will get in touch with the individual to find out how they are doing.

Return-to-work planning

Involve your occupational health provider in the consideration of return-to-work options for an individual during or following treatment. A return-to-work plan should be the result of joint decision-making between the manager and individual with consideration of a phased return or flexible working, any reasonable adjustments that need to be made (see below) and what handover or other key information needs to be prepared for them. Meet with the employee early enough to allow sufficient time for any preparations to be made for his/her return.

Making reasonable adjustments

A person is automatically classified as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 from the point of a cancer diagnosis. There is therefore a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments so that your employee is not placed at a disadvantage at work.

Fatigue is a common problem following treatment and it can continue for a long time. Options for assisting the member of staff might include building in provision for regular breaks, flexible working, avoiding lone working situations or helping individuals to break down work tasks to make them more manageable.

If the employee has existing performance management targets it would be a good idea to review these to establish if they are still realistic. Other physical effects of treatment may require changes to the work environment, to accommodate reduced mobility for example. Where other options have been exhausted, alternative employment (temporary or permanent) should be considered.

Readjust plans as necessary

Be prepared to exercise discretion when needed. Cancer treatment does not always follow the original plan; any support you put in place will need to be fine-tuned as treatment progresses.

Be prepared to exercise some flexibility over interpreting absence management procedures, taking HR advice as necessary. Remain in communication with the employee about any changes you have made.

What to say

Whatever you do, don’t avoid the employee: whenever cancer is involved it is easy to worry about saying the wrong thing and end up saying nothing at all.

Everyone has different coping mechanisms so take your lead from the employee: if he/she uses humour then respond to it, but avoid initiating it yourself.

Empathise, but avoid being overly positive or repeating unhelpful clichés like “I’m sure everything will turn out fine”.

Ask questions about how they are and what they need, reassure them that they are valued and that support is available to them.

Above all, keep the lines of communication open and don’t mentally punish yourself if the words sometimes come out wrong.

Remember others

Don’t forget that this is also a difficult time for yourself and other colleagues.

Acknowledge the impact of the person’s treatment on the workloads of others: whilst most colleagues will be very understanding and willing to help, they may still become resentful after a time if they are not receiving support themselves.

Also remember that you, and your colleagues, may be hit emotionally by the diagnosis and treatment of another. Allow time for reflection and seek support, for yourself or others, when the circumstances are proving difficult to cope with.

As well as your Employee Assistance Programme, if one is available to you at work, there are numerous support agencies who provide telephone advice.

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