How to Support a Colleague Suffering from Cancer

October 10, 2017

Cancer is a scary word. Naturally, we empathise with anyone suffering from this horrendous disease. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Laura discusses how to deal with cancer in the workplace.

By Laura Rigby

The Fundamentals

  • The Equality Act automatically protects a person with cancer as it’s considered a disability.
  • They may or may not be fit for work and their perception of this may differ from reality.
  • As an employer, you have a duty of care and legal obligation to support the employee and make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them returning to work or to facilitate them being in work.

It’s really important that you speak to a HR or occupational health professional about these fundamentals to make sure the company as well as the employee are protected, and you are offering them as much support as you can.
For the employee, being at work can be both hugely beneficial and hugely daunting. The aim is to try and get them back to work or try to keep them from needing to take time off work (without going against medical advice of course). However regardless of whether they are fit for work or not, you should talk to them. Make time to understand both their physical and emotional needs and reactions – in short, it’s ok to ask questions. How much do they want to protect their privacy, how can you accommodate their privacy whilst ensuring they feel 100% supported? These are the type of things you can agree together.

Depending on the type of cancer, your employee could be going through all kinds of emotions, including how they feel about their body changing. This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which can affect anyone, although men are often overlooked with it seen as a “women’s cancer”. Your employee might need time off for reconstruction surgery, followed by support with the emotional after effects. Macmillan Cancer Support offers a variety of support services, plus if you have an employee assistance program, this can be an additional resource to call upon.
The Financials
As an employer, you might have access to certain benefits that could support an employee suffering from cancer. In fact, the employee may be contractually entitled to it! Be sure to check their contract and workplace policies for matters like sick pay or counselling. If they’re not entitled to something, consider whether your organisation can afford to pay for it. Cancer will always be considered an acceptable reason for discretion. Whatever you do for one employee with cancer, make sure that any future cases are treated consistently (although each case is often unique and so the same level of support and/ or discretion might not always be required).
The Work Family
What about the work family? Even if the person wasn’t that close to their colleagues, consider how the team might be affected. Everyone’s circumstances are different and other team members could also have been affected by cancer, either personally or a family member. This could bring back memories and emotions that they need time and support with. People often spend more time with their colleagues than their own friends and family. Make sure the level of privacy requested by the individual is met, rally round those who need it, socialise together, and make sure the team is fully supported.
Bear in mind that everyone is different and everyone deals with their own worries and grief in different ways, particularly if the worse happens (see Tim’s blog on grief). If you’re their manager or the business owner, don’t forget about yourself too – you’re human and may naturally feel affected by it.
You’re not expected to know everything but you can get yourself prepared. For advice and support on how to manage cancer in the workplace, get in touch with HR180. Alternatively, Macmillan has some great, free resources including a toolkit and support line.

Leeds based HR180 is a team of superheroes in HR Outsourcing, Projects and Consultancy committed to work in partnership with organisations of all sizes to establish working policies to go above and beyond Employment Law requirements, to protect both employees and employers alike. We love to hear from you, so call us on 0113 287 8150 or hit the Rescue Me button.

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