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How businesses can support staff with cancer

HR professionals must support both employees themselves and other managers and team members who will be affected by a cancer diagnosis

One in two of us will be touched by cancer in our lifetimes. We have come a long way in treatment and the good news is that most people will get better and return to work as positive and effective members of the team. There is so much value attached to your existing workforce; they are often irreplaceable and supporting them back into the workforce is extremely important

However, a cancer diagnosis can be devastating for the individual and those around them. Managing the effects of cancer can be a real challenge for both employees and employers. HR professionals can support both employees themselves and other managers and team members who will be affected by a cancer diagnosis.

Two of the main stumbling blocks are employees feeling uncomfortable sharing the details of their situation and subsequently feeling discriminated against. And on the other side employers can feel uncomfortable knowing what support to offer and provide. Here are some pointers on making managing cancer in the workplace a supportive experience.

Clear vision and open dialogue

In defining your approach in advance you can make sure everyone understands how you will react and how you will ensure all staff are supported and valued. A diagnosis of cancer for an employee has a complex web of consequences. Set out a clear strategy and define your approach as an employer. Be clear on your policy and decide on what you plan to offer, to whom and how you will practically do it.

Be sensitive and empathise

Often a diagnosis will be handled as a clinical matter, however as an employer the emotional and practical effects on the individual are likely to be the most immediate challenge to deal with. Having access to information and support for all staff involved is important so that they can resolve the uncertainty they will feel.

While the diagnosis will be devastating news, employers should encourage employees to inform their line manager and HR rep as soon as they feel able so that support and assistance can be made available.

Define process and structure

As with any good business practice employees should know the process and structure in advance of becoming ill. This should be communicated to all employees through regular HR channels. An agreed consistent approach will ensure clarity in your message and avoids employees being offered different levels of support depending on where they might be within an organisation’s geography or hierarchy.

Don’t assume that someone with cancer will want to work less – they might want everything to remain the same and be very able to deal with that.

Having a set policy that outlines the approach to understanding, support and confidentiality offers a foundation for the employee in understanding how the employer will handle the news and what will be on offer to help them.

By defining your approach you send a strong indication to employees that you will treat their condition with support and compassion.

Confidentiality and trust

The biggest piece of advice is to respect your employees' confidentiality, and make sure that in any policy it is clear that the employer will respect the wishes of the individual.

With a cancer diagnosis an individual’s world will be turned upside-down, with their future thrown into uncertainty. Not wanting to speak up or engage their employer when they don’t know themselves what they may be able to do or what they need is very understandable.

Your employees should know that with all the support available cancer is not a road they need to walk alone. Having a culture that encourages them to speak up early and get help and support in fighting the condition can relieve much of the burden.

Malcolm Cairns is CEO of cancer support provider Harley Street Concierge