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Critical Illness in the Workplace

We are delighted this month to welcome back our HR Director, Marie Sandler after an extended period of illness. Upon returning Marie has been kind enough to share with us her thoughts on Cancer in the workplace. A sensitive subject that affects many, and speaking from experience we hope Marie’s thoughts can support others…

When my doctor told me that I had ovarian cancer and I needed to have a hysterectomy, my initial reaction was one of “Why do they always have to remove a part of your body you need? Why can’t people get cancer of the fat? Marie, you’ve got cancer of your fat and we are going to have to take it all out.”

For the people who know me well, this is a typical Marie reaction, one of resilience, and tenacity and my own style of humour. Cancer isn’t a laughing matter though, it’s great when some people can bring out the funny side of what is a serious subject. In the workplace, though, whenever an employee is confronted with a cancer diagnosis, it’s usually just all seriousness. And working through that process can be really tough and awkward.

I was lucky to have one of the area’s most prolific consultants for “female” cancers support me and carry out my surgery – Mr Thambarajah. During our many discussions, I asked him for the types of problems that he thought could arise when employees need time away from work for cancer treatment. I was genuinely curious from a HR point of view and as a distraction from having to think about the horrendous journey I was about to embark on.

“Managers find it extremely difficult to manage issues around cancer,” he said. “One of the biggest issues is communication.”

For example, when employees are diagnosed with cancer, they often prefer to keep it a secret from their colleagues. This isn’t really because they want to protect their privacy. It’s more because they’re overwhelmed just trying to deal with the news, their emotions, the consequences, the uncertainty of what’s to come, and all that stuff that dramatically changes their life.

Of course, the employee tells the manager what’s going on, but then the manager is left in a hard situation. When, unexpectedly, an employee needs a long time off work, how does the manager communicate the employee’s absence when the reason for it can’t be disclosed.

Managers are placed in a precarious position. They have a desire to support their employee and do whatever it takes to support them during their illness and also in their return to work. However, if the employee instructs the manager not to disclose details about their diagnosis, then [the employee’s colleagues] will complain if they are required to pick up the extra work for an extended period of time without explanation.

Further complications arise down the track. One of the big unknowns is how the employee will respond to the cancer treatment. Some people are able to return to work and resume their responsibilities. Others may experience side effects that make it difficult to go back anytime soon.

Even when an employee feels comfortable telling people what’s going on, it still presents managers with a delicate issue to manage.

“Managers find it difficult to communicate about cancer,” stated Mr Thambarajah.

Although treatment for cancer has improved and survival from cancer has significantly increased, many of us fear the worst. Usually, colleagues of the person affected will rally support for their fellow employee and will willingly take on extra work that’s required. However, this is not always the case.

What’s important is that managers maintain a high level of communication. This means checking in with the team to see how they’re handling the additional workload. By unearthing their concerns, managers can put in place solutions to mitigate them.
But most critical is how the manager deals with the person who’s unwell. The UK Cancer Council provides the following guidelines:
• Provide the employee with additional flexibility, such as options to work from home or to job share
• Arrange for a parking space closer to the office so that it’s easier to get to and from work
• Allow the employee to rest when needed since it’s common for cancer treatment to deplete a person’s energy
• Rearrange the workload so that absences aren’t too disruptive, and ask the employee if others can do some of his or her work
• People with cancer can feel as though they’ve lost control over their lives, so let them have control at work by giving them more autonomy

And, really, just be there. Often what makes the biggest difference to a cancer patient isn’t so much the doing; it’s the listening!

Thanks, Marie once more for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

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