How to deal with cancer in the workplace

Four in 10 people will get cancer at some point in their lives, but it's as hard as ever to talk about it, especially in the workplace.

by Joy Reymond
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

With recent advances in medicine, more people are living with cancer than ever before. These survivors want to lead as normal a life as possible, returning to the life they had before their cancer.  For many of them this includes a return to work.

But new research from Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and Unum, an insurer and workplace rehabilitation specialist, reveals that the workplace has yet to catch up with these medical advances, with over 63,000 people living with cancer in the UK, who want to work but are encountering barriers that prevent them from doing so.

It is vital that employers re-assess the way they deal with cancer in the workplace.

Here are some simple steps that businesses can take to support employees with cancer:

•    Maintain open, regular and meaningful communication whilst employees are off sick or undergoing treatment
This will demonstrate that they remain a valued member of the business and make it easier to talk openly about options when they are ready to return.

•    Keep the lines of communication open
Employees with cancer feel that employer support wanes once they return; many feel their job may be at risk and are therefore unwilling to ask for modifications to their duties or hours even though this would increase the chances of a successful return to work. The employer has to step up and make sure that these issues are addressed.

•    Understand some of the likely impacts of cancer
Everyone’s situation is unique but there are common side-effects of cancer and cancer treatments. Take these into account when someone is returning to work to ensure a realistic plan can be developed. For instance, is the individual experiencing fatigue, loss of concentration, loss of self-confidence? Talking these through can be incredibly helpful, and demonstrates real commitment to making this work.

•    Be flexible
See whether your employee can contribute to the business – even if not to the extent that they did previously. They may be able to do other work or work at other times. A phased return to work programme could help both employer and employee achieve a successful return to the workplace.

•     Find out what to expect from someone returning to work after cancer, and share this with staff at all levels
Most people have no idea what the person with cancer is going through, either mentally or physically; giving employees greater insight into this experience can help the organisation respond appropriately and work more effectively with employees who have cancer.

•    Provide line managers with the education and support to manage the return to work (RTW) of someone with cancer
Misunderstanding and lack of knowledge can create a damaging schism between employees and line managers. Train your managers to understand what adjustments someone with cancer might need, and how to design an effective RTW plan.

Line managers often face challenging targets, which make it difficult for them to accommodate someone who is not yet ‘100%’, particularly if the manager has to meet demanding productivity requirements. Give your support so that they can realistically include the individual back in their team; in particular do not penalise managers who have reduced productivity as a result of making adjustments for that employee.

•    Appoint a coach, mentor or third party
Make good use of independent third parties who can facilitate communication and education between employer and employee, breaking down barriers and providing guidance for both parties.

Joy Reymond is head of Vocational Rehabilitation Services at Unum UK

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