Employer guide: how to provide effective workplace support following a cancer diagnosis

Written by: Anne Corder Recruitment
Published on: 28 Nov 2022

Most people will know someone who has been affected by cancer, either in their personal or professional lives. According to Cancer Research UK, there are around 375,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year, that's around 1,000 every day. The good news is that cancer survival rates have doubled over the past 40 years.

However, although improving survival rates are indeed promising, a cancer diagnosis for anyone is a huge shock and an incredibly frightening and lonely place to be. Friends and family undoubtedly rally round, but what about employers? Anne Corder Recruitment managing director, Nel Woolcott, is urging employers to consider how they can best support their staff following a cancer diagnosis.

Engage with respectful empathy

Being an employer or manager, it is often too easy to reach for the handbook, or look up the tried and tested process needed to overcome an employee issue. When an employee entrusts you with the news of their cancer diagnosis, it is crucial to understand that one size doesn’t fit all. You must adopt the human approach.  Employees who have been diagnosed with cancer will be undertaking one of, if not the most difficult periods of their lives.

Compassion and empathy are what is needed from employers at this time and the ability to listen well to your team member when they give you the news. Respect how they want to approach this with other team members and understand that they may wish to keep the diagnosis between you and them. If the person wants the rest of the team to know, discuss whether they want to tell the team themselves or whether they want you to as a team manager. Agree between you what details you will share if you are to be the one to deliver the message to the team.

Many more of us work from home now, but if you are in a busy office environment, be aware of spaces where you and your member of staff might be overheard. Be sensitive and select locations where you can have completely confidential conversations about their situation.

Be equipped

If you are faced with this for the first time as an employer or manager, it can be incredibly daunting and you will feel a lot of pressure to act in the right way and say the right thing. Nel advises, “There is no shame in proactively boosting your confidence and ability to have sensitive conversations by undertaking some additional training. Speak to your HR team to help identify the right resources to support you, so you can best support your member of staff.”

Refrain from giving advice

It’s hard not to start offering advice or drawing on friends or family member’s cancer stories. Although a well-meaning endeavor, this runs the risk of overwhelming your employee with unhelpful information, anecdotes and hearsay. 

Make your employee feel supported, ensure that they know they can approach you when they feel that they are struggling to cope. As a manager and not a healthcare professional, your function is a supportive one, not an advisory one.

The most important thing is that your employee knows you are there to discuss the situation and their work if and when they need to, and that they remain a valued member of staff on your team who will be supported.

Embrace flexibility

There will undoubtedly be many hospital appointments, tests and treatments that your employee will need to attend and you should help them prioritise these amongst the wider team and workload. Taking a flexible approach with this will relieve a huge amount of pressure for the employee.

Managers.org states that employers should be prepared to see dips in performance from team members following a cancer diagnosis, and they should show understanding around this.

Supporting a staff member return to work after cancer

Nel also explained that the support expected by employers doesn’t stop when thankfully a staff member is given the all clear. An employee returning to work after cancer will have mixed emotions. Relief to be returning to 'normal life’, but probably also incredibly anxious and nervous that they won’t be able to cope.

She said, “As a manager or employer, you should have maintained consistent contact with your member of staff during their time away from work, but increasing this level of communication in the weeks leading up to their return will help them feel reassured. Discuss whether they want to return at reduced hours, or if any changes need to be made to accommodate them. They may not feel they can simply ‘slip’ back into their role and work in the same way they once did.”

Your other team members and employees will appreciate any advice you may be able to share on how they can best support the person returning to work. Empower your other team members to provide the support your returning worker needs to feel comfortable and part of the same team they have been temporarily absent from.

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the workplace can be incredibly difficult for employers and employees alike. These suggestions offer a framework that can help better equip those needing to support a staff member during their time of need.