Cancer in the workplace: how employers can prepare themselves

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It goes without saying that employers cannot ignore cancer. However, it is equally true that employers can – and should – be well-prepared to approach cancer in the right way.

There are several barriers that organisations must overcome getting this approach right, but ultimately they have be described in terms of three key themes:

  • our emotional responses to cancer
  • our misunderstanding of what cancer is and what it means for people who have it
  • not having the knowledge to support employees with cancer.  

Emotion is perhaps the foremost barrier organisations will face.

There can be a lot of emotion in the workplace related to cancer. There are a few reasons for this: for example, awareness from cancer organisations about cancer is strong, regular, and consistent and, at the same time, cancer is common enough for many employees and line managers to be in a position where they know at least one person who has (or has had) cancer.

People in positions where they need to support employees with cancer may therefore need to navigate their own emotions as well as those of the person they are managing.

Managing processes – doing one-to-one meetings, managing absence, ensuring adjustments are in place, for example – are one thing, but organisations are still rarely equipping managers with the emotional resilience to support and manage the emotional aspect of having cancer (or being diagnosed with any condition) in the workplace.

Our (very natural) emotions around cancer can help to feed misconceptions around it.

It is critical that in supporting people with cancer in the workplace that we remember that like other conditions, cancer is not only ‘one thing.’ There are many different types of cancer, with an increasing number of treatment options, and an incredibly varying number of prognoses.

In short, cancer will be a very different thing to each person who has it.

For some people, a diagnosis may mean a course of treatment with remission to follow; for others, remission may be a number of years away; for others still, a prognosis may be uncertain; a diagnosis may mean that employees are now navigating what it means to be told that their lives may be ending.

Managers have to remember this variability when supporting employees affected by cancer. They must avoid blanket judgements, or assumptions that people with cancer will have to stop doing certain things, become ‘slower’, or will have to stop work altogether.

While this might be true for some people with any condition, it can be untrue for an equal number of others with cancer.

We need, then, to move away from cancer meaning ‘one thing’ and instead move towards an individual approach to understanding cancer where we make decisions with employees based on what cancer is and will be for them.

Likewise, we need to move away from thinking of cancer as ‘one experience’. Employees can be navigating a vast range of situations and experiences, and their reactions will reflect that. As managers, our responses must reflect that too.

It is easy to make judgements about what we think others in the latter situation ‘should do.’

In such instances, it is all too easy for managers to slip into the ‘If I were you, I would…’ narrative. An example for me comes from a few years ago, when I was managing a very talented woman whose prognosis was that she may have up to three months left of her life.

She was a senior manager and had been in her role for over 15 years. Her managers said “If I were you, I’d spend those last months with your family”. However, this was not what the employee wanted to do. She wanted to continue her routine in the vocation she loved and that had been part of her life for almost two decades – and that’s what she did.

This needed to be carefully managed, because it meant colleagues were perceiving her to have made the ‘wrong choice’. The employee said that she heard a colleagues saying “Why is she here?” which, in turn, created an environment in which the employee felt others thought she should no longer be in her role or working.

We are therefore not just talking about flexibility in terms of adjustments – i.e. time off for treatment or appointments; adjusted working hours or patterns; or different duties. We are also talking about flexibility in terms of allowing people to make their own decisions about their lives – even if the decisions we would make ourselves would be different.

Communication plays a key role in this approach.

In this context, communication means a number of different things, from keeping in  touch in a way that suits the employee (such as a phone call on an agreed day, or an email once a week) while they are on leave related to their cancer to being available to talk if and when they employee needs it.

Communication also means meeting the employee where they are emotionally. As with any diagnosis, an employee may not know everything about their cancer or how it will affect them all at once. It can be common for people to find out information a bit at a time as they see various medical professionals.

Managers will need to be understanding about this: not only will this have implications for how and when the employee puts adjustments in place, but it also means that the employee may still be navigating a huge range of feelings and emotions about their bodies and their lives at a time when the employer is asking questions such as “What do you need from me?”

Sometimes, the answer will be, “I don’t know”. Part of supporting employees with cancer is learning to accept this answer and respond to it flexibly.

In sum, then, line managers need to be equipped with:

  • Knowledge of the practical support available from the employer– for example, how to discuss, request, and implement adjustments (and understanding that these adjustments may need to change over time).
  • Knowledge of the emotional support available from the employer – for example, access to personal development programme, employee assistance, or counselling or buddying support.
  • The soft skills to confidently hold supportive conversations with employees who have cancer, which may inevitably include a range of emotions including fear, dread, sometimes depression or anxiety, and sometimes, disengagement for a short period while adjusting to new news or circumstances.

About Angela Matthews

Angela Matthews

Angela is the Advice Service and Policy Manager at Business Disability Forum. She manages the Advice Service and leads on policy work. She is also an advisor to a number of external research projects on disability related social policy. She has been a consultant in diversity and human resources and has also been a strategic adviser to Central Government departments. She is Chair of the Central Government Disability Inclusion Network which exists to engage diversity and disability-related professionals in Central Government in best practice exchange and solutions-focussed debates.

Diversity, and particularly disability, has been a focus for Angela throughout her career. This gives her a unique insight into disability as a business issue from a variety of perspectives. Starting in advising people with long-term conditions on nutrition and wellbeing, she then moved into occupational therapy where she specialised in older people’s mental health and physical rehabilitation). She then changed career and trained in human resources, where she quickly focussed on disability-related employee casework, data management, and workplace adjustments. She then became an advisor to senior management teams and governing bodies on equality and discrimination law in practice in the public sector. Eventually managing diversity, Angela led projects managing equality analysis procedures, establishing disability and diversity monitoring frameworks, and implementing workplace adjustment processes.

Angela’s key interests at Business Disability Forum are:

Employee engagement, productivity, and wellbeing;

Diversity data monitoring and information ethics;

Welfare reform, disability rights, and health care and disability policy development;

Social research methodologies and research management.

Angela is academically qualified (BA Hons, PgCert, PgDip, MPhil) and graduated with distinction in equality and discrimination law at postgraduate level. She was also trained in the Equality Act 2010 by the lawyers who drafted the Act itself. She has enjoyed serving as a volunteer advisor at local ‘blue light’ diversity forums on hate crime related to race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation.

Angela is currently doing her PhD in religion and social theory at the University of Kent. Her research is on the role of emotion in social policy and law formation, which includes the role of protest and social movements in securing rights and legislation for disabled people.

Angela plays the flute and the viola and spends free evenings after work at the Royal Festival Hall.

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