Individuals in or approaching cancer treatment oftentimes need to juggle a lot of appointments and information at once. As the employer of someone who’s just been diagnosed, there are a few ways you can make their life a little less complicated and stressful during this time.
Respect their privacy
You’ll want to ensure that you are respecting the employee’s privacy in the workplace. Check with your human resources department to ensure that you are following all applicable laws and company policies about disclosure and medical leave.
You should discuss disclosure in a private conversation with your employee, too. They will probably have boundaries and preferences about how much information is shared with colleagues. If it’s not clear what these preferences are, you can ask them directly with questions such as “How much, if any, of this diagnosis or treatment information are you comfortable sharing with the team?”
“It's really important to [the employee] that they have control over disclosure. It’s their choice about who they want to disclose to and when,” explains Wendy Casper, Ph.D., the Peggy E. Swanson Endowed Chair of Management at the University of Texas at Arlington and a breast cancer survivor. Casper is an expert on work-life balance whose current research focuses on the impact of cancer treatment on individuals’ employment experiences.
Casper adds that employees may also consider the option of disclosing information on their own to individual colleagues versus having the employer provide information to the group.
Ultimately, your employee must have the opportunity to choose their level of disclosure with colleagues. Their comfort level may change over time as they continue through treatment, but that should never be assumed until they say so explicitly.
A little extra flexibility with schedules, workloads, and deadlines goes a long way.
Navigating a cancer diagnosis can be unpredictable and overwhelming, no matter which way you slice it. Remember that even the most dedicated and energetic employees will be processing this experience as they go and will need to allocate additional time and energy to their own personal well-being.
Just a few ways you could make the employee’s life easier might include: allowing them flexible working hours and location, reassigning tasks, and assuring them that it’s okay to slow down. They may worry about their productivity changing during this time, so it can be helpful to remind them that it’s perfectly understandable for them to feel strained by their new reality.
Casper emphasizes that employees should be given the opportunity to make their own decisions about any changes to workload and schedule. She notes that, for some people, keeping work as normal as possible during treatment helps them cope by maintaining their work identity and providing an important distraction. Others, particularly those experiencing significant difficulty with their treatments, may find it necessary to decrease their working hours and responsibilities. Either way, Casper says, the freedom to make these decisions should remain with the employee.
Provide personal support, if wanted
If your employee has decided to disclose their health details with colleagues, they may be open to sharing their personal support information so that others can stay in the loop and contribute in a meaningful way.
The employee might have a support website, blog, or a wish list of care items. These are a great way to provide support in a way that the employee has specifically identified. Depending on the employee’s level of disclosure and your relationship with them, your team may want to chip in on a group gift like meal gift cards or a subscription box for personal care items.
Overall, an employer should give their employee ample opportunities to express their needs and allow them as much control as possible over how they handle their work during cancer treatment. “It’s important for the employer to not make assumptions based on stereotypes about what it means to have cancer treatment. Each person’s experience is unique,” says Casper.
At the end of the day, supporting an employee navigating their cancer experience doesn’t have to be complicated. Allow them to set the tone for their expectations of privacy. Reassure them that they are still a valued member of the team. Give them permission to take the necessary time and energy to take care of themselves without feeling guilty. If they indicate that they would like to maintain a certain schedule or workload, support them in this decision. Finally, if desired, show your support through their chosen communication method and wish list. A supportive and flexible employer can make a huge difference for someone taking on the new challenges presented by cancer diagnosis and treatment.
If you are currently in or have completed cancer treatment and would be willing to participate in an interview with Dr. Wendy Casper about how your cancer experience impacted your professional life to support her ongoing research, please contact her at email@example.com. For additional support speaking with your employer about your cancer diagnosis, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.