To honour National Volunteer Week, an HR professional talks about her pro bono work – advising people with cancer about their employment.
Many of us have a connection to cancer. In October 2017, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. She learned about it as she was planning to move from South Australia to Sydney to start a new teaching role in January 2018.
My mum decided to reach out to her new employers, with whom she had signed a contract, and tell them she would need to start her role a month later than planned – to give her enough time to figure out how to balance her new job with her diagnosis and treatment options.
Even though my mum’s cancer prognosis wasn’t terminal, and she had easy access to treatment, her employers decided to retract her contract, leaving her unemployed. According to her contract, she says, her employers were obliged to pay her four weeks’ worth of pay, which they refused to do. Deciding the stress of obtaining the pay was too much, my mum decided to just focus on her health and not challenge the employers.
Fortunately enough, that time of unemployment gave her the freedom to seek treatment and other career opportunities. She now lives and works in New Zealand.
Helping through HR
Cancer Council estimates 145,000 new cancer diagnoses will be made this year. No doubt a huge number of those people will be faced with the prospect of losing employment security.
As HRM has written about in the past, a dramatic change in an employee’s identity – such as after they experience an accident – can have side effects, anxiety and depression amongst them. And even though work might expect the same from you, what you can provide might change. So support and understanding can make a huge difference.
Lucy Wilson, director of people and culture at Leadbolt, has 12 years’ experience in HR. In her spare time she uses her expertise to help people with cancer with their work-related issues.
Cancer Council has a pro bono program that brings together HR professionals with people who have cancer that want employment or workplace related advice, and in 2014 Wilson began volunteering.
“I had a friend who was doing some legal work with the Cancer Council and she knew I had a keen interest in their pro bono program,” she says. “When I was 20 my mum passed away from Leukemia. I know the impact of what that could do to someone’s livelihood.
“So when my friend said there was an opportunity to volunteer, I thought, why not?”
Wilson’s mum worked full time and was a triathlete in her spare time, but due her illness she had to quit.
“It’s a huge process for a family to go through and it challenges everybody in the family unit as well. And some people don’t have any support.”
Wilson’s personal and professional knowledge is used to assist clients and help them achieve their desired employment outcomes, which can often be due to relationship breakdowns at work.
Wilson wasn’t surprised to hear that my mum’s employers refused to give her the four weeks’ pay she was entitled to.
“Employers going back on promises is one thing, but failing contractual obligations is certainly something I see a lot of. And depending on how the client feels and what their desired outcome may be, I often suggest we challenge the employer.”
In such cases Wilson says her clients might have nothing to lose, but often she hears that the effort of challenging employers is not worth the stress.
“For some employers I think it’s unconscious, and for others conscious. Either way they take the view that the employee is going to say ‘its too hard’ or ‘it’s not worth the stress’ and I have seen some employers sadly take advantage of that.”
She says she’s been fortunate to work for companies like Leadbolt and previously Deloitte, who support employees faced with cancer, but she puts that down to the size of companies. The bigger a company is, the more resources they have available to provide support.
“Being kind, caring and working hard to find flexible alternatives however, doesn’t cost a thing! Many organisations will provide support above and beyond the legislative obligations.”
She says radical change at the government level would provide small businesses with the opportunity to support their employees who have a cancer diagnosis.
“Superannuation and government funds should be supporting small businesses, which make up 70 per cent of the market. So why aren’t we supporting business owners with insurance options that allow them to have these policies in place to support employees financially?”
For employees undergoing cancer treatment just showing up to work is difficult and, if they can manage it, it’s a huge achievement, says Wilson.
But the reality is that employers are often blind to this fact. Wilson has seen many instances where employers put employees with cancer on performance improvement plans.
“They justify this with saying ‘you’re not coming to work enough’ or ‘you’ve taken too many sick days’, even when medical certificates are provided, which is against the law. Someone undergoing life-changing treatment will most likely not be able to match their previous performance levels.”
Wilson says that every single client she has worked with wants to work and those that are working want flexibility.
“People who have a purpose, feel they add value and have that value recognised at work feel empowered. And it takes their mind off of being ill.”
“They need flexibility, but some employers don’t know how to facilitate that without potentially seeing significant loss in productivity,” says Wilson.
Even if employers cannot provide flexibility, Wilson says they can provide support.
“We need more workplaces asking ‘how can I help?’ If this was about your number one person – your CEO – getting sick, don’t tell me you wouldn’t look after them. So what happens if it happens to anybody else, how are you going to help them?”
A success story
One of Wilson’s earliest pro bono experiences was with a client in their 50’s, who had been working at a medical company for 20 years.
“They were a veteran at that organisation and an incredible human.”
The client was leading a large team at work, and had been for a long time, when they were diagnosed with cancer. According to Wilson, they did not disclose their prognosis with their employer in the right way, and over time they failed to meet certain requirements of their role and was put on performance review.
“It became clear that this issue stemmed from a relationship break down between my client and their boss. There was stubbornness and egos involved and we really needed to work past that.”
Wilson decided to roleplay conversations with her client and even gave him scripts to practise with.
“The client’s confidence was knocked around a bit and we needed to get them back on track. And over a series of conversations we were able to rebuild their relationship with their boss.”
At times her client still needed time off of work, and some of their tasks were not realistically achievable, so Wilson built in a framework to help their employers leverage other employees’ time to help get the client’s work done.
“There were so many people who wanted to learn from my client at work and that boosted morale,” she says.
“Volunteering for a cause like this has given me incredible purpose. And I would strongly recommend any HR professionals that are keen to understand more about cancer to use Cancer Council’s resources.”
Wilson offers the following advice to organisations:
- Have someone trained in responding to illness-related issues
- Don’t be afraid of having honest and courageous conversations about cancer
- Show that you value the employee’s work and that they are important to your organisation
- Commit to being proactive
- Seek out guidance from the Cancer Council
- If you can, put an EAP in place
AHRI has a wide range of courses to help ensure you are equipped with the tools necessary to support your employees with whatever issues life may throw at them.