What happens when a member of your workforce has to face living with cancer? Matt Chittock discovers practical ways to support employees through tough times
Talking about cancer can be tough. Even though more of us than ever before are surviving the disease it still remains a taboo subject for many. And if it’s difficult to talk about with friends and family, tackling it in a professional capacity can be even trickier. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, 120,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year. That means many managers will find themselves supporting an employee who has it.
For Eamonn Sparkes, head of HR at international malt supplier Muntons PLC, that day came when one of the company’s 300-strong staff was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “Not only did he find out on Christmas Eve that he had cancer, he also found out that it was a terminal cancer,” he says. “He had no symptoms, so he didn’t know anything was wrong with him. He just went for a check-up and something was not quite right, so they sent him for further tests. Eventually, after a few different tests he was given the bad news.”
Because all cancers are different, and people deal with cancer in different ways, Sparkes believes that understanding each individual’s needs is the starting point to offering effective practical and emotional support. “We pride ourselves as an employer that knows its people really well,” he says.“You can begin to support people by actually knowing that individual, having an understanding and empathy with them and what they’re facing as a person.”
As well as empathy, clear communication with both the staff member who’s affected, and concerned team members, is another crucial area. However, it can be one of the most delicate issues to handle well. “Communication can be quite difficult, particularly if the staff member doesn’t want to tell colleagues or other peers that they have cancer,” says Liz Egan, head of Macmillan Cancer Support’s Working Through Cancer programme. “There’s the issue around how you communicate with the individual when they’re off sick and not in the workplace – should you contact them? Shouldn’t you contact them? Knowing the best thing to do is quite hard.”
“People can get scared or worried about cancer and how they’re going to treat a colleague that has it,” says Sparkes. “I find that usually the individual wants to be treated as a normal person. So, the key is encouraging them to be open about their condition and talk to their colleagues about it. That way their colleagues will know how to react.”
In practical terms, understanding what’s ahead for both employer and employee can help provide a clear way forward. To achieve this, Muntons uses an occupational health provider who can give team members useful information – as well as someone they can talk to outside of their normal networks. “This gives people someone to speak with about their condition, someone who understands the medical side and can advise them about what they can and can’t do at work,” says Sparkes.
“[Occupational health] can then say to us: ’This is what’s going to happen, they’re going to get tired, they’re going to be struggling with sickness when they’re having chemotherapy, this is what you must be prepared for.”
These predictions can be used to suggest changes in working hours, and flexible working options to enable the person with cancer to stay at work, if appropriate. “We do other things to take away the pressure like looking at sick pay entitlement,” says Sparkes. “So, for example, in one case we said we would continue to pay the person when they’d run out of occupational sick pay. If you don’t get paid and then you’re dealing with cancer as well, imagine the pressure that might have on someone. So, we try and take a sensible and empathetic approach.”
Since more people are surviving cancer, and want to return to the office after treatment, managers might find it useful to put in place a mutually-agreed return to work plan. Sparkes says that to make it work, both sides have to be realistic. He cites post-treatment fatigue as a common problem, which means reviewing the employee’s workload is important. “I’ve seen colleagues readily take on these issues and cover for an individual when they’re away,” he says.
”Everyone sort of pulls together, which is really nice to see. And, you know, people do come out the other side of having cancer and have a different outlook on life,” he adds. "What’s important to them might change. So, we tend to be mindful of that. Because, if they get a second chance, worries that they’ve had before then seem daft to them. They come back with even greater willingness to live life to the full.”
Macmillan Cancer Support can provide advice for managers supporting employees with cancer. See macmillan.org.uk/work for more details.
Macmillan Cancer Support’s Top Tips for managers
1. Be sensitive to your employee’s needs. Medical treatments and the subsequent physical and emotional reactions will vary from person to person.
2. Listen to your employee without judgment and try to understand their particular situation.
3. Check to see if your organisation has any guidelines and policies to provide support to you and your employee.
4. Be aware cancer is legally defined as a disability, so you might need to make adjustments where appropriate.
5. Respect your employee’s privacy. If they want others in the organisation to be made aware, discuss how they’d prefer to go about this.