27 September 2023

Duty of care: Supporting an employee diagnosed with cancer

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Jessica Miller-Merrell* says employers must think about the support and resources they can provide in the event an employee or family member is impacted by cancer.

According to research by the US National Cancer Institute, nearly 40 per cent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes.

And this number is growing, which makes the subject of cancer in the workplace a more common one.

I’m not just talking about sick leave negotiations, but the support, resources, and information you can provide your employees in the event that a co-worker or a family member is impacted by a cancer diagnosis.

Ann Fry, an executive leadership coach and workplace crisis consultant, is a clinically trained social worker who uses her experience to provide leadership coaching and workplace crisis consulting.

Ann first discovered the need for helping support leaders, their employees, and families in this way after receiving her own cancer diagnosis.

She quickly realised that business leaders and workplaces aren’t equipped with the training and support beyond wellness programs and employee assistance programs to support the individual employee.

Providing employee support for cancer and severe medical diagnoses

This topic is a sombre one, however, having experienced this in my HR career first hand, I recognise a need for more of these conversations exists, especially when you consider the growing number of people who are impacted by not just a cancer diagnosis but any severe illness.

Ann says the reality is that most people when receiving a diagnosis for themselves or a loved one talk to their boss.

Often bosses and leaders are uncomfortable with the conversation and don’t know what to say.

She says the leaders push those conversations off to HR.

Part of what Ann likes to do is get involved in helping leadership be more comfortable being sensitive so that when someone who works for them comes to them they can have conversations.

The focus is on providing support for the employee and making them feel comfortable in a way that is unique to their specific needs.

Many HR leaders may be concerned about things like confidentiality when it comes to the sharing of medical information.

However, when an employee chooses to disclose a diagnosis Ann says that HR and leadership should talk to the employee and discuss how and if they want it to be shared as well as the way in which they want to be supported by peers, leadership and their direct manager.

Sometimes this comes in the form of a flexible schedule, staying positive, checking in, or hosting a meal train for the family.

Each situation is different, just like each person’s fight against cancer.

This topic is not just about wellness but about supporting employees throughout their career.

The truth is that our personal lives bleed over into our workplace ones and that is especially true when it comes to a serious illness or diagnosis like cancer, not just for ourselves but our family and friends.

We need to be thinking about the different ways we can provide our employees support in all areas of their lives.

* Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent, author and founder of Workology. She tweets at @jmillermerrell.

This article first appeared at workology.com.

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