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Supporting a colleague affected by cancer

Ahead of World Cancer Day we consider how to create a supportive environment for those diagnosed with cancer

Many of us will know someone who has been affected by cancer; one in two people will be diagnosed in their lifetime. The good news is that cancer survival rates are increasing thanks, in part, to early diagnosis and treatment and medical advances.

For many people staying at or returning to work following a cancer diagnosis or treatment is key to helping them regain a sense of normality and financial independence, as well as benefit from the social aspects of daily working life.

We know that many businesses want to support employees who are struggling with a diagnosis or are undergoing treatment. However, HR managers and line managers can find it difficult to broach the subject.

If an employee at your company is struggling with cancer – whether this is anxiety over symptoms that could be cancer, or a diagnosis – it’s essential to create an environment where they can feel supported and can talk about it. Businesses need to create an environment where cancer can be discussed as honestly and openly as a common cold.

1. Use your existing communication channels

Use existing internal communication channels, such as the intranet or posters in communal areas, to provide educational material on cancer and tips on how to talk about it. It may be useful to host interactive sessions for teams to educate people on cancer and to help dispel some of the common myths that surround the disease. Knowing that they will be supported may encourage people to come forward if they need to.

2. Be there for them

This may sound obvious, but being available and visible to your colleagues is often more important than trying to say the right thing all the time. Everyone is different, so let your colleague decide how much they want to talk about their cancer and try to find ways you can make their life a bit easier – perhaps by speaking to their team lead about competing deadlines, or helping manage their diary to work around medical appointments.

The aim for work during this time should be to enable them to feel a source of security and familiarity, rather than adding to an already stressful and busy time.

3. Offer flexibility

Some people with cancer continue to work throughout their treatment but it’s likely that more flexibility will be needed to allow them to attend appointments, treatment sessions or recuperate after treatment. Make sure that you check in regularly so that you’re both on top of their whereabouts, and that their team lead is fully informed.

It’s also really important that your colleague is aware of any protocols or responsibilities during this time: such as claiming sick pay or getting a ‘fit note’ from their GP. Early occupational health advice can help you support an employee who wants to stay at or return to work.

4. Support access to services

Early detection can have a significant impact on survival rates and can often reduce the need for complex and invasive treatment.

Offering employees access to health services can help ensure that any worries or symptoms are examined early. We know that many people who are worried about cancer put off going to their GP. They may find it difficult to find the time to book an appointment or they may feel hesitant about visiting their doctor.

5. Support their return to normality

People returning to work after recovering from cancer will undoubtedly feel mixed emotions – everything from relief and excitement to worry over whether they can still cope with the pace.

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. While it may be different from person to person, small adjustments to the working day (such as encouraging short breaks or adjusting tasks) can make a real difference. It’s a good idea to get in contact with a colleague before they return to work to understand what support they may need. I’d suggest discussing whether they’ll be able to return to their usual hours, or if flexible working arrangements would be helpful to enable a smooth transition.

Providing information for team members on how they can best support their colleague’s return to work can help them to feel more confident about the way they can support someone who is returning. This will ensure that the whole team feel included and are all engaged and aware of the support that would be on offer should they ever need it.

Steve Iley is Bupa's UK medical director