Why communication is key to supporting employees with cancer

Cancer patient talking to colleague
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One of the main challenges line managers face when supporting an employee affected by cancer is how best to start initial conversations. It can be difficult to know where to start, what to say and, importantly, what not to say.

Despite concerns, it is vital that employers initiate talks and keep communication channels open, so they can better understand the support needed from an employee. Whether that is to help them either remain at work or return to work after their treatment, if they wish to do so.

During initial conversations, it’s important for employees to know that all information will be dealt with sensitively and confidentially, as this will help them to be open. It is also important to remember that everyone’s experience of cancer will be different, and each individual may be going through an entirely unique situation.

What is helpful for one person might not be appropriate for someone else.

How to start the conversation...

For line managers, when discussing sensitive matters, it’s important to find a private place to talk. It may also help to:

  • Let the employee take the lead in the conversation

  • Ask how they’re feeling

  • Ask how much time off they need for appointments, while remembering they may not have this information yet

  • Discuss what will or won’t be shared with other colleagues; they may need time to process the information before the team is informed

  • It can also be helpful for employees living with cancer to have another point of contact in the workplace. perhaps someone other than their line manager who they find it easier to talk to – perhaps someone other than their line manager who they find it easier to talk to.

Follow-up communications are essential

Once the initial conversation has taken place, it is important in follow-up meetings that line managers also offer information about:

  • The options for time off

  • Policies on flexible working

  • Their rights to be protected against discrimination

  • Services their organisation offers to support them

All of these factors can help an employee to make the right informed decisions about work during their treatment, and staying in or returning to work.

One employee’s communication experience with his workplace during cancer treatment

Paul works for builders’ merchants Travis Perkins, one of Macmillan Cancer Support’s corporate partners. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007, and his treatment meant that he was unable to work for several months. He says:

When I was diagnosed with cancer my bosses were great – we discussed everything and agreed I would come in when I could, and could stay at home when I didn’t feel well enough. We had regular catch ups, so I could keep them updated on my situation, and they could let me know of any changes at work.

If a person needs to take time away from work, it is good practice to set a long-term communication plan before they stop working. This way it is agreed how and when employers will keep in touch, as well as what information they would like to be kept up to date with.

By exploring this, a line manager will have arrangements in place for keeping in touch with the employee before their absence, which allows for appropriate contact with the employee during periods of leave. If this is not in place, it can result in the employee feeling isolated and anxious when the time comes to return to work.

It is also important to revisit plans as a person’s treatment progresses as their requirements may change over time.

A line manager’s perspective on supporting an employee with cancer

A manager from Norwich City Council supported an employee with returning to work following their cancer treatment, ensuring communication channels were kept open with the employee, HR and occupational health. This ensured a supported return-to-work plan was in place. He says:

I supported an employee returning to work following a one year absence due to cervical cancer; she had a full hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She was not well enough to be in work during the course of her treatment, and reasonable adjustments were made to support her when she was ready to return.

In order to be able to support the staff member who was affected by cancer, I undertook training with Macmillan at Work to understand how cancer treatment affects people, and how this can affect people long term. This helped me to identify what support Norwich City Council could provide.

As a line manager, it's important to understand how a person's cancer treatment might have affected them, and the likelihood that it will take several months, if not years, to recover.

I sought advice from our occupational health service to identify how best to support the employee with cancer and met weekly with the employee to monitor their progress for returning to work. I also utilised the occupational health service to guide me as a manager, and spoke with my HR officer and my manager too, which helped me share how I was feeling at the time.

We set up a phased return plan for seven months, utilising the organisation's phased return procedures and outstanding annual leave. The employee was also given flexibility in terms of late starts or early finishes on days when she was very tired and needed more support, and we adapted her workload and phased in duties that she felt most comfortable with. Colleagues took on additional work to support too.

As a line manager, it's important to understand how a person's cancer treatment might have affected them, and the likelihood that it will take several months, if not years, to recover.

It is also important to listen to the employee and arrange regular checks with them so that they feel supported and that any changes that may be needed are picked up quickly. I now use the Macmillan at Work toolkit to help other colleagues who may also be supporting staff affected by cancer.

If you have any questions, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.

About Michelle Griffiths

Michelle Griffiths

Michelle is the Development Manager for Macmillan at Work, which provides support for HR professionals and Line Managers to help them feel equipped and confident in supporting employees affected by cancer.

If you have any questions about work and cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.

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