When someone is faced with a cancer diagnosis, it turns their world upside down, so having a supportive employer is invaluable. Here are some tips and resources to help HR offer the right kind of care.
Every year in Australia, 1,800 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It is the eighth-most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian females, but the most lethal gynaecological cancer, with one woman dying from the disease every eight hours.
In August last year, my sister Lauren became one of those women. She was 38. Like me, Lauren was an HR professional, and she was working in a company where she was very highly regarded.
During the 12 months from her diagnosis to her passing, the consideration Lauren received from her employer was exemplary, and, alongside that, the understanding my own employer showed during this time was also outstanding.
During this time, I became a Community Ambassador for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF). This role, along with the behaviour that both these organisations exhibited during a time of unknowns, fear and loss, had a huge effect on me.
These events have led me to explore the role that organisations and HR professionals can play in helping not just those diagnosed with cancer through their journey, but also their close family and friends who walk the path beside them.
In preparing this article, I was lucky enough to speak to some incredible women who have survived ovarian cancer, and who shared their insights into what workplaces can do to support those undergoing treatment.
Read HRM’s guide about how to facilitate a return-to-work plan for cancer survivors.
How to support employees diagnosed with cancer
1. Don’t make assumptions about how they’ll want to work
For some people who are diagnosed with cancer, work may be the furthest thing from their mind. For others, it can be one of their biggest concerns.
A good starting point is to ask the employee how they are feeling and what they need right now. Learn as much as you can about their diagnosis and what that might mean in terms of their work. Let them know what options are available to them. Bear in mind that they may not know too much yet, as depending on their diagnosis, treatment options may take some time to figure out. Reach out to them regularly to see how things are progressing.
Focusing on work may provide the employee the chance to be someone other than a cancer patient for a few hours. Don’t make decisions for them in relation to what they can or can’t do based on their illness. Give them the same opportunity you would any other employee to take on new roles or tasks and let them tell you if they don’t think they can take on anything new.
Read HRM’s article on why staying at work during tough times is sometimes the best thing for people’s mental health.
2. Ensure you have adequate flexible working arrangements
If the employee who has been diagnosed with cancer wants to (and can) continue working, consider your organisation’s flexible working arrangements. The option for reduced days or hours, amended duties, working from home or changes in workspace may assist the employee during their treatment. The same could be said for close family and friends of cancer patients.
Discuss the options that might work best for them and be open to amending as their treatment progresses.
“Don’t make decisions for [the employee] in relation to what they can or can’t do based on their illness.”
3. Rethink traditional approaches to leave policies
It’s also a good idea to review and update your leave policies. Can you offer additional personal leave (unpaid or paid if your business can afford it) to the employee? Or, if they are close to receiving long service leave, could this be paid out early?
Read HRM’s article on what to do if any employee runs out of sick leave.
4. Make sure you have effective external support available
Remind employees of any additional support services they may have access to. Employee Assistance Programs can be an excellent source of confidential and independent care at no cost to the employee.
Keep in mind your employee may be in shock at their diagnosis and the speed at which things can move afterwards. Be prepared to be proactive in finding solutions to suit the needs of the employee and the business.
Read HRM’s article on HR’s obligations around offering employees psychological support.
What about those supporting someone through a cancer diagnosis?
Being the family member of someone with cancer is hugely confronting and very stressful. During Lauren’s illness and following her passing, work was a source of normality, control and stability for me. But everyone will have a different experience.
As a proactive organisation, supporting the loved ones of someone diagnosed with cancer is not dissimilar to supporting the person with the disease. All the steps above are relevant to friends and family of those with cancer, including offering flexibility where you can. They may not be the ones receiving treatment, but being available to attend appointments and be an advocate for their family member while they are receiving treatment is invaluable.
How an organisation reacts to a cancer diagnosis invariably comes down to culture. If you genuinely care for, value and trust your employees, solutions will always be found. In turn you will likely have employees who are engaged and keen to give back.
If you would like further advice, the Cancer Council Australia has some wonderful information and tools for employers which you can find here.
Amy Rein CPHR is an AHRI QLD State Councillor. Many thanks to Dr Shabnam Gujadhur, Candice Hung and Sarah Doughton for sharing their time and experiences in preparation of this article. The OCRF and Witchery are partnering across April and May to run the White Shirt Campaign, culminating on World Ovarian Cancer Day on Monday 8 May. This campaign aims to raise much-needed awareness about ovarian cancer and funds for research into early detection tests and treatments. Find out more about the OCRF, and ovarian cancer here, and support the White Shirt Campaign here.
Not sure how to respond to an employee going through a personal crisis? It might be helpful to hone your skills in emotional intelligence. Book in for AHRI’s course on Applied Emotional Intelligence.