Compassion and flexibility: What should you say to someone with cancer at work?

Speaking with an employee who has been newly diagnosed with cancer might be the most sensitive conversation you have as a manager or HR professional. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.

In Australia, almost 145,000 new instances of cancer are diagnosed every day (excluding basal and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin). Of these cases, more than 40% will occur in people of working age (20-64). In New Zealand, cancer is the country’s number one killer, with more than 23,000 people diagnosed yearly.

Navigating this situation for the first time can be daunting for managers who must juggle compassion, flexibility and practicality, all while following the lead of their employee.

Here, Leanne Bloomfield, a HR professional who lends her time to the Cancer Council’s Pro Bono Program, shares how line managers and HR can prepare for, and carry out, the initial meeting with an employee who has disclosed a cancer diagnosis.  

Disclosure, workplace culture, and privacy.

“It’s up to the employee how much they tell their employer, or whether they disclose their cancer diagnosis at all,” says Leanne.

“Some people are more private than others, and talking about health or medical conditions can be really uncomfortable. There may also be a concern that the workplace culture is unsupportive or discriminatory.”

Whilst there is no law stating an employee must share their diagnosis with their employer, there is an obligation under the Work Health & Safety Act (WHS) that places a general duty on the employer to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.

How should you approach the conversation with an employee who has alerted you to their diagnosis?

“This is why it’s important to have the conversation with your employee soon after the cancer diagnosis has been disclosed, to offer support and eventually agree on a suitable work plan should changes be required” says Leanne.

Don’t rush or be tempted to formulate a response immediately. Instead, set up a meeting to take place shortly after the information has been shared, and provide the employee with notice and the purpose of the meeting so they can prepare.

“Allow plenty of time for the meeting as it may be a long and difficult conversation,” says Leanne. “It’s a good idea to advise the employee that they can bring a support person if they would like to, as they may be emotional.

“Choose a quiet, private and safe space at the office where there will be no interruptions. If the employee is working from home, the meeting can also be held via video-conference.”

Some organisations may have a policy for HR to attend meetings likely to result in workplace changes. If this is the case, line managers should seek approval from the employee before inviting HR into the initial meeting.

How should you prepare for the conversation?

Chances are you know family, friends or work colleagues who have undergone treatment for cancer, but it’s important to avoid making assumptions about the employee’s diagnosis based on previous experience.

Leanne encourages employers to remain mindful that there are several different forms of cancer and treatment plans: “Every person’s circumstances will be different, which means there is no one-size-fits-all response to a cancer diagnosis.”

With this in mind, before the meeting, take the time to prepare by:

  • Learning as much as you can about the type of cancer, treatment, and side effects so you’re well informed, which will lead to a more empathetic and constructive meeting.
  • Familiarise yourself with your organisation’s policies and legal obligations such as duty of care, leave provisions, flexible work policies and employee assistance programs.
  • Take advantage of the excellent resources available from Cancer Council Australia, which includes information for employers on cancer myths and facts, creating cancer-friendly workplaces, supporting colleagues with cancer, and more.

What is the best way to communicate with your employee?

“Talk less, listen more,” says Leanne.

Begin the meeting with an opening phrase such as, “I can imagine you have a lot on your mind right now, so take your time.” From there, allow the employee to run the conversation. If they are having difficulty, gently guide the conversation by asking open questions.

“The objective of the initial meeting is to listen to your employee, seek to understand their situation and needs, and determine how they would like to take things forward,” advises Leanne. “Avoid interrupting, making assumptions, or pressing for more information. Respect the fact that some employees may want to talk at length, while others may prefer to keep the discussion short and functional.”

“Reassure your employee that anything they communicate to you is strictly confidential and their role at the organisation is secure. Any announcements about the diagnosis must be authorised by the employee.”

End the meeting by summarising the key points, but keep in mind that the first meeting is about information gathering rather than taking action.  Arrange a follow-up meeting if a work plan needs to be developed or flexible working arrangements are agreed upon.

What issues should you cover during this conversation?

There’s no need to address every practicality during the first conversation with your employee, particularly if they are feeling overwhelmed or struggling to process the information.

“A common question to ask in the initial meeting is ‘What do you need from me/from the organisation?’,” says Leanne. “Be ready to answer likely concerns such as clarifying policies around leave entitlement and flexible working arrangements.”

In the aftermath of your initial discussion(s), you’ll need to develop a long-term work plan for your employee. This should balance – as realistically as possible – the needs of the employee with the needs of the organisation. It’s also worth evaluating the workloads of the rest of your team to gauge if they can take on additional responsibilities and adapt to the changes you’re making.

Questions which may help formulate a plan include:

  • Does your employee want their colleagues to be informed? If so, would they prefer communication in a team meeting, or by email?
  • Are there going to be any barriers to the employee’s ability to fulfil their role? For example, they might be unable to travel to meet clients for a while or struggle to commit to certain recurring meetings or calls.
  • How much leave is your employee entitled to and what other benefits and support are available through your organisation?
  • Has the employee’s health care team suggested any adjustments? Reasonable adjustments could include extra breaks due to pain or fatigue, time off to attend medical appointments, reduced hours or flexible working arrangements, a gradual return to work, or a private space to lie down if feeling unwell at work.

Put everything in writing, but be prepared to be flexible. Leanne notes that any work plan developed in the initial stages of the cancer journey may require adjusting as the employee works through treatment.

What should you avoid doing?

“Employee privacy is of the utmost importance here. You mustn’t disclose the details of your employee’s diagnosis to anyone within the organisation without their permission, or pressure them to do so before they are ready,” says Leanne.

“Secondly, be mindful not to overwhelm your employee. Your concern and care are well-meaning but may not be helpful. Be sure to check-in regularly but don’t bombard them with questions or continuously bring up the subject of their diagnosis. On the other hand, don’t avoid the person or make it awkward.”

Finally, don’t assume you’re doing your employee a favour by taking work off their hands. For many people coping with a cancer diagnosis, throwing themselves into work is a necessary distraction while others simply don’t want to be treated differently. “If you notice your employee is struggling, have an open conversation about how you can help rather than making assumptions and decisions on their behalf,” she says.

Leanne recommends avoiding the following:

  • Avoid sharing stories about other people with cancer you may have known.
  • Don’t say that everything will be okay, because you don’t know that it will.
  • Don’t downplay what the patient is going through or say you know how they must be feeling.
  • Don’t ask about their prognosis.
  • Don’t make covering their workload the employee’s problem. It’s up to the manager to make arrangements such as temporary workers or secondments.

But what if I am a small business relying on this employee?

What if you run a small business, and though you are deeply concerned for your staff member and want to support them, you are also not sure how this may impact your business?

Under Australian law, cancer is considered a disability. If you cannot perform your usual work duties, the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 requires your employer to make changes to the workplace so you can keep working. These changes are known as reasonable adjustments.

An employer can refuse your request to make changes only if the changes would cause unjustifiable hardship to their business or, in some cases, on reasonable business grounds. If you believe this may apply to your business, seek legal advice before having this conversation with the employee.

Where to go to learn more?

The steps you take to make your workplace a supportive and accommodating environment for an employee who has been diagnosed with cancer could help make a very difficult time a little less stressful. Be sure to take advantage of the excellent resources for HR and managers on the Cancer Council website.

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