Helping employers support staff following a cancer diagnosis

Recently I read a great article in The Conversation by Stephen Bevan ( highlighting that cancer treatment and care have been revolutionized over the last few years and increasingly people are living longer post diagnosis. However, as he points out in this article, how do we ensure that people are ‘thriving’ post diagnosis, not just ‘surviving’?

Although treatment improvements are likely to continue, nationally we are not seeing people return to work following treatment at the same rate (Bevan 2018). For those who want to return to work, we have to question what the obstacles are and who can help to surmount them?

Certainly health care providers have a responsibility to support the patients rehabilitation following treatment to the extent that they can return to work if they want to, but employers are also a crucial piece of the puzzle in mapping out a successful and sustainable return to work.

In our Cancer Work Support Service, we see a significant variation in how employers support people back to work following cancer.

Some organisations are proactive in their support and work hard to understand their employee’s needs, whilst others wait until their employee has been told they are medically ready to return to work, before they contact them. For the individual, this can be six months or a year since they were at work and could be months since they were discharged from their specialist clinical team. They may have had little contact with work during this time and no support in improving their mental and physical fitness to prepare them to get back into work. Often our patients describe this time as ‘falling off a cliff’.

There are a number of ways that, as an organisation, you can support the transition of your colleague from patient to employee.
You can develop meaningful HR policies to flexibly support successful return to work planning. It is good to question whether your policies can be flexible to react to individual need or are they based on a ‘one size fits all’?

Let’s think about a few examples:
1) Would your policy allow a person experiencing fatigue, as a result of chemotherapy to use a convenient disabled parking bay on a short term basis? or would you insist that the person apply for a blue badge?
2) Do you have a fixed return to work schedule, i.e. 6 weeks, or can you flex to a much slower phased return if needed?
3) Have you considered this group of people within your disability and inclusion policy and how are you accommodating ‘reasonable adjustments’ as per the Equality Act 2010?

Support your HR team and line managers to understand what your employee with cancer may be going through, so they can be better equipped to provide the right support. A great way to do this is to provide better general knowledge about cancer and treatment. You can build a library of useful resources and provide links to charities such as Macmillan and Anthony Nolan for further information. The idea is not to become experts but improve staff confidence and understanding.

How about upskilling your line managers to have better conversations when their colleague is off with cancer? Are they frightened of having those conversations? Are they worried that they will be putting pressure on them, are they scared about saying the wrong thing? Is this causing them to put their head in the sand and not having an open conversation?
Consider the case of Nadine who had worked for her organisation for a decade.
She couldn’t’ understand why her line manager wasn’t getting in contact with her, yet whenever she called her manager they returned her call immediately.
Her line manager was worried about contacting her; Nadine thought she didn’t care.

Just a simple ‘what support would you like from us at the moment?’ is a good starting point. Later on, when return to work is more imminent it is helpful to ask ‘what symptoms are you experiencing and how can we help to accommodate them for you?’ For example, if someone is experiencing fatigue, it may be helpful to start later in the day, or perhaps, if their concentration is at its best in the morning make plans around this. Keeping in regular communication and keeping your promises is key. We’ve heard stories where employees are still waiting for that call back, even several months later in some cases. Imagine how they feel about their employer and return to work.

Employers have a significant role to play in putting return to work on the map for people living with and beyond cancer. In answer to Bevan’s question, the role of an understanding, helpful, empathic and flexible employer can enable an individual to thrive rather than survive post diagnosis.