Navigating the rough waters of a cancer diagnosis is most difficult for the person who has been diagnosed, but it also can bring lots of questions, concerns and confusion for those left behind in the workplace. “What do I say?”, “What do I do?”, “How do I act?” are some of the questions that can go through someone’s mind when an employee/peer/leader tells them that they are going to be off work for cancer.
Here is my advice for how leaders, human resource professionals and peers can help support an employee who has been diagnosed with cancer:
Don’t push for more details than you need
For me it was very difficult to even tell my boss (who I had a great relationship with) that I had to be off work, let alone that it was because of cancer.
- Tips for leaders: I had an amazing boss who was more concerned for me than she was the work and knew enough not to ask me for more than I was willing to offer in the moment. Her first comment after I told her was “How can I help you?” That set the tone as I felt in “control” of my information.
- Tips for HR professionals: The human resource professional that my leader recommended I speak to regarding benefits was empathic but professional. She didn’t pepper me with questions such as “What type of cancer?” or “How long will you be off?” She stuck to the information she needed to answer my questions and help me with the benefits process.
- Tips for workplace peers: I told very few people, and I chose to tell my team the bare minimum as I wasn’t ready to share full story. They were concerned but they respected my choice and didn’t push me for details.
These were a few of the hardest discussions I’ve ever, had but the support and respect I was given by everyone involved made it easier.
I referred to this site from the Canadian Cancer Society before discussing my situation with people at work and found it very helpful.
Help them get the information they need
My main concerns were: Will I get paid? Will I have benefits? Can I keep my job?
- Tips for leaders: My boss made sure I knew my job would be waiting for me.
- Tips for HR professionals: My human resource partner first and foremost answered my initial concerns around my pay and benefits. Then she took me through what I needed to do to start the benefit process. Most importantly, after she had answered all my questions, she wished me the best. I walked from our meeting with a small weight lifted and I felt like a person, not a number. Never underestimate the power of human connection.
- If your company has a human resources team, they are a good first step. They can help the employee answer their questions around benefits, payroll and/or any counselling services your company might offer, such as EAP.
- If your company does not have a human resources team, there is some great information on cancer at Cancer Care Ontario and the Canadian Cancer Society
- Companies without benefits plans might want to direct employees to this Government of Canada site to learn about their financial options.
- Gilda’s Club is an amazing (and free) resource for people living with cancer in Ontario.
- The hospital where the individual is receiving their cancer treatments will also have a lot of valuable resources for them. Their oncologist will be able to direct them.
Lighten their workload
Some people might not know how to redistribute their workload, or they might want to try to burn the midnight oil to get as much as they can get done before they go on leave. Either way, they will need the guidance and support of their leader to ensure they are not overdoing it and, as best they can, not be worried about work while they are off.
- Tips for leaders/human resources professionals: Redistribute the individual’s work as a “stretch assignment” for someone who has been identified as ready for one. This can help with their professional development while lightening the load for the employee who is getting ready for a leave.
It is also important to be open to consider flex hours, and/or the ability to work from home if possible.
Let them know you are thinking of them
There is nothing wrong with “checking in” on an employee to see how they are doing (not to ask them when they will be back to work). It helps them feel like they are still a part of the team.
- Tips for leaders: My boss kept in regular contact.
- Tips for peers: My peers and teams sent me sweet notes, and pictures. I received an amazing basket full of goodies from everyone. I felt cared for and, most importantly, it made me still feel like a valued member of the team.
My most important piece of advice is to remember that this is not a “one-size-fits-all” scenario. Everyone handles news like this differently. The understanding of how your employee wants to live with this news will be unique. Respect their choice and treat them how they would like to be treated. This will have a significant impact on the beginning of their journey through cancer and when they are ready for their “career after cancer.”