Working with cancer: Tips for employers

Workplace meeting

Understanding the needs of an employee with cancer and managing their day-to-day worklife helps not only the person facing cancer, but their colleagues and organisation too.

Our tips below give workplace employers and colleagues tips on how to support someone going through cancer at work. 

Talking about cancer at work

If an employee goes to you to talk about a cancer diagnosis:

  • Avoid distraction by organising a confidential area to speak. 
  • Allow the employee to speak at their own pace. 
  • Listen to what they have to say and don’t feel a need to respond. 
  • Don’t agree or disagree – keep your response neutral, such as simply nodding your head. You will learn more from listening to them.
  • It is ok to ask questions but take your cue from them; if they feel uncomfortable answering the question, don’t push them for an answer. Some people are quite private while others will be open. 
  • Pay close attention and try not to interrupt, then summarise what you’ve discussed. 
  • Let an employee know that you care, that your door will be open to them should they wish to discuss anything. Encourage them to continue communicating with you.

Attention

  • Focus on the employee’s need rather than the needs of the workplace.
  • Be practical by offering to help in specific ways – try to avoid being vague.
  • Always check before doing something for the employee even if you feel you’re being helpful.
  • If the employee is absent from work, include them by keeping them up to date with what’s happening in work – their job is important to them.

Confidentiality

  • Never discuss one employee’s medical condition with another employee without their permission.  
  • If the employee wants others to be made aware of their situation, discuss with them how this should be handled.

How to support an employee with cancer

  • Be flexible with the employee. Allow for changes to their working schedule if required. They may need to attend appointments or reduce their working hours, depending on their diagnosis and treatment plan. 
  • In some cases, the employee may need to take time off.
  • Allow for flexible working hours or perhaps working from home, if possible.
  • Organise a parking space at work if possible. 
  • Assure the employee that you will adjust their workload, if necessary, should they wish to continue working while having treatment.
  • If an employee wishes to return to work after a period of absence, discuss a return-to-work plan with them, such as returning to work on a phased basis.

Helpful tip: Be aware that if the employee choses to discuss their cancer diagnosis with you at the time of their initial diagnosis, they may not have all the facts surrounding their treatment plan in place.

Guidelines and policies

  • Inform yourself about your employees’ rights and entitlements and any company guidelines or policies that exist in relation to supporting an employee who has cancer or who is caring for someone with cancer.
  • Talk to your HR department, if you have one, about guidelines and policies around employees and cancer. 
  • Pay particular attention to sickness absence, sickness pay and occupational health provision, as well as long-term absence.  
  • Being aware of legal requirements and any guidelines and policies in your organisation means you can give clear guidance to your employees about their rights and entitlements and meet your obligations as an employer.

Coping with emotions at work

A diagnosis of cancer can have an emotional impact not just on the employee diagnosed with cancer but also on their colleagues and on you as an employer.

  • Emotional reactions will vary from person to person.
  • Although patience and empathy are called for, watch out for negative behaviour within the team.
  • Encourage communication between you and the employee and you and the team. 
  • If you feel more support is needed, discuss this with the HR department, if you have one. 
  • You can call our Support Line on 1800 200 700 for information about local cancer support groups in your area. 

Find free support in your area.

Understanding the importance of work for your employee

Being able to continue working is important for many people with a cancer diagnosis, for various reasons:

  • It could mean a sense of routine or “normality” to the employee.
  • It could offer a sense of control in one aspect of the employee’s life.
  • The employee may need to work for financial reasons.
Return to work report

Returning to work can be challenging for a variety of reasons. An Irish Cancer Society-funded study, conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) - Returning to Work after a Cancer Diagnosis - explores the issue of going back to work and makes recommendations to employers, government and trade unions.
Returning to Work after a Cancer Diagnosis

Helping other employees to cope

Having a colleague with a cancer diagnosis can affect your other employees.

They may be upset or unsure how to react, or a colleague’s absence for treatment or through illness may put them under strain, due to their workload being increased.

  • Don’t talk about their colleague’s cancer diagnosis - bring the situation back to them and its effect on their working life.
  • Ask if they are managing their workload.
  • Be practical – are there measures you can take to lessen their workload, if it has increased? 
  • Find out their particular concerns – both personal and practical.

Carers

Cancer can also affect an employee caring for a loved one with a cancer diagnosis.

  • The employee may need to reduce their hours or take a period of absence from work.
  •  They may not know their rights and responsibilities with regards to combining caring and work.
  • They may need extra practical and emotional support from their colleagues and you as an employer at this time.
  • A carer’s need for extra time off work may increase stress levels – for the carer who has to try to manage their workload while working shorter hours, or for other staff members who are supporting their absent colleague.
  • Be alert to any tensions in the team and offer support where available.
  • Keep all channels of communications open.
More information

Workplace Relations Commission

Free information service for employers, directors and business owners.
Website: http://www.workplacerelations.ie

Information and Customer Services phoneline: 1890 80 80 90 or see the Citizens Information website for information about employment rights

Advice for employers regarding return to work for workers diagnosed with cancer (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work)
Helpful leaflet for employers outlining tips on helping workers return to work following cancer treatment

For more information

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1800 200 700

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