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Supporting employees affected by terminal illness

12th Jun 2019
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Terminal illness is a very upsetting and difficult thing for anybody to come to terms with. However, the reality is that it could happen to anybody. And because of this, it’s important that employers are prepared to support their people, and understand how they can help.

Ways to show your workforce support when they’re affected by terminal illness

Here are some simple steps you can take to show compassion and respect to your employees during this difficult time:

Communication is key

If you are told that an employee has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, encouraging an open dialogue with them is really important. Make sure they know their conversations will be kept confidential, and if they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their line manager, it may be more appropriate to speak to someone in HR or another senior member of staff.

If they’ve recently been diagnosed, they may not yet know how long they’ll carry on working, if at all. So, arranging regular catch-ups over this period of time will be valuable for both the employee and the employer, as their situation is likely to change. 

It’s also important to discuss whether they feel comfortable sharing the news of their situation with their peers. It may be something they want to do in their own time, or perhaps they’d like help with telling people in an appropriate way. Either way, make sure they know their decision is respected, and only when they give full consent, should the news be shared with others. 

Consider the other employees                                                                                        

This type of situation will also impact the rest of your workforce, particularly if they work closely with the individual or have known them for a long time. So, it’s just as important to maintain an open dialogue with these employees around how they’re feeling and coping at work to understand what support they might need too.

Treat each case individually

Whilst it’s necessary to have certain policies and procedures in place for unwell employees, it’s important to acknowledge that no two experiences will be exactly the same. And as mentioned, terminal illnesses affect people in different ways. So first and foremost, employers should treat employees as individuals and approach each situation with an open mind where possible. This will help ensure the employee feels valued and personally cared for, and enable your company to provide the most appropriate support for their specific needs.

The same goes for the employee’s peers – not everyone will respond to a situation like this in the same way. And for many employees, this could be the first time they’ve known someone with a terminal illness. Make sure they’re given the time they need to process the news, and acknowledge their individual needs where you can.

Understand their illness

Gaining an undestanding of their illness can help with these conversations. You don’t need to be a medical expert, but having a basic awareness of the key symptoms, signs of progression and how it impacts the employee’s work and personal life is key to providing the appropriate support. Feeling understood can also make the employee feel more comfortable talking about their situation openly.

Be flexible where you can

Employees with a terminal illness are likely going to have regular medical appointments, and want to spend as much time with their loved ones as possible. If their health deteriorates they may also need more rest. Offering flexible working hours or the ability to work from home, when appropriate, can be beneficial to them as well as your business.

Provide clarity on their sick pay

Most of these employees will need to take time off for treatment. Make sure they’re aware of the sick pay they’re entitled to, particularly if your company is able to make exceptions or adjustments to your standard policy to help their situation. Providing clarity around finances will help relieve additional stress and anxiety they have, and also enable them to make the right decision in terms of how long to remain working.   

Provide an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)

Providing an EAP line can be particularly valuable to an employee with a terminal illness, as they’re likely to feel stressed, anxious or depressed at times, and may have financial worries if they have a family to provide for.

A full EAP comes as standard with Benenden Healthcare for Business, and it’s accessible 24/7 meaning employees can speak to a qualified counsellor any time they need some support.

Make workplace adjustments

The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability – which includes terminal illnesses. This might include specific furniture or accessibility aids to make sure they’re able to carry out their work comfortably.

Regularly review their workload

Regularly review the employee’s workload and repsonsibilities, as their situation is likely to change over time. Having an open discussion will help you understand what’s realistic and achievable and where adjustments should be made.

Keep in touch

If the employee needs to take a significant period of time off work, consider keeping in touch by sending them a card or making an occasional phone call. Checking in to see how they’re feeling and if there’s anything the company can do to help when they decide to return to work, will demonstrate that they’re a valued and supported member of the team.

Going the extra mile to make life as comfortable as possible for a teminally unwell employee will not only help improve their quality of life, but it’ll be benefit your business too. If it’s seen that you’re not providing genuine and meaningful support at such a significant time in an employee’s life, it could cause irreversable damage to your company’s culture and staff morale.

On the other hand, showing that you genuinely care about your employees will encourage staff loyalty, engagement and morale – and it’ll be a glowing represtentation of a supportive workplace culture.

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