· Features

D&I Clinic: How to handle terminal illness

Guest expert Joanne Smithson addresses how HR can improve the experience of employees working with a terminal illness, and their colleagues

Q. How can we support employees working with a terminal illness while being fair to other employees?

A. Approach this situation with compassion and consistency.

Have a conversation with the terminally ill person to understand their motivations for wanting to continue work. Then ensure that your communication, work adjustments and day-to-day management support that person, as well as the wider team.

Although it is rare for a person of working age to receive a terminal diagnosis, as the population ages, works longer and disease treatments continue to improve, HR professionals are increasingly required to provide support for employees with a terminal diagnosis.

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Terminal illness is distinct from long-term health conditions. Here, we are talking about health conditions that cannot be cured and are likely to lead to someone’s death within months or sometimes years.

For many terminally ill people, work can provide much-needed sense of normality during intense change, a sense of purpose and meaning, social support as well as essential income and financial stability. But each situation is unique, and there is very little evidence about what is most effective when supporting employees who have a terminal illness.

Look across your organisation at existing processes, systems and ways of working. What can you bring to a terminal illness case from existing people management practices?

Our research highlights that terminally ill people don’t want pity or to feel that they are getting a free pass. But it is often the case that people’s capacity changes and they are no longer able to do the job they were doing before diagnosis. However, they are still able to contribute to their teams and the organisation.

Having conversations that take a broad view about a person’s contribution may help navigate changing levels of energy or capacity, and can support people to feel valued.

Extending job-crafting discussions across a team can increase motivation, engagement and job satisfaction for all team members. Occupational health professionals can help line managers consider adjustments.

Ensuring consistency and coherence in your approach shouldn’t mean a lack of diversity in the elements of support for an employee, or that managers and employees are prevented from developing new approaches.

A terminally ill employee’s fitness to work may fluctuate. Offer as much flexibility as is manageable and reasonable, bearing in mind that different adjustments may be needed at different times.

Joanne Smithson is head of implementation and learning at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing


This article was first published in our January/February 2024 print edition. Subscribe today to have all of our latest articles delivered right to your desk.