HR Tips for Supporting Employees with Cancer

What to consider so that, when needed, you can offer assistance

By Rebecca V. Nellis Dec 8, 2015

The author is chief mission officer at Cancer and Careers, which provides programs and services on cancer workplace issues, and is the sole initiative of the CEW Foundation, the charitable arm of Cosmetic Executive Women, a New York–based nonprofit trade organization.

When an employee is diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard to know how to react or what the best course of action is for providing support. Cancer represents a wide range of diagnoses, treatments, side effects and recovery processes. It is also a very personal experience that people handle in the way that makes sense for them. Some people will be very up-front with their health information and what they need. Others will be more guarded and private.

As an HR professional or manager, you are not expected to understand all of the variables. However, there are things you can think about, organize and research so that when needed, you are a better resource for clarity and support. Preparation can offer you (and your employees) solid footing at a time when things feel off-kilter.

Here are some tips for supporting an employee with cancer:

  • Know the relevant information on company policy. There are a whole host of work policies that will affect your employee day-to-day. You should be able to speak fluently about medical leave and short- and long-term disability policies—or make the introduction to someone who can. Flexible work policies, paid time off and leave banks are also useful resources for employees with cancer, if your company offers these options. Health insurance is a category in itself that may take the most time and discussion. Helping the employee call their health insurance company and connect with the right people is the best first step.
  • Be familiar with the laws that protect employees in the workplace. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) may be applicable and can create a framework of support. State laws may also come into play, so a general understanding of the law is necessary. Knowing how your company has handled cancer or chronic illness in the past is also critical.
  • Be in tune with how the employee is approaching you and try to mirror his or her demeanor. Knowing some key, open-ended phrases can also help express your concern and desire to help. For example, “I am sorry this is happening to you” or “I am thinking of you” can open up lines of communication.
  • Think ahead. Agreeing on an office point person to serve as the employee’s eyes and ears when he or she is absent is a smart way to be proactive. It is also (mutually) beneficial to create a written plan on how work will be handled, especially if the plan includes flexible work options like telecommuting, co-working situations or flextime.
  • Understand disclosure preferences. Just because an employee discloses his or her diagnosis to you does not necessarily mean he or she wants everyone at work to know. Deciding who to tell is an intensely personal decision that each individual must make for themselves. Some might consider it essential to disclose their diagnosis more widely because they hold managerial positions, while others may consider that a reason not to tell. Privacy and protection may be of the utmost concern to an employee. Whatever the circumstance, make sure that you understand the employee’s preference in terms of disclosure.
  • Consider workplace modifications. Helping an employee with cancer feel comfortable in his or her workspace can be incredibly helpful in the face of treatment side effects and general fatigue. Sometimes small adjustments, such as making sure files and equipment are within easy reach or finding a more ergonomic chair, can remove unnecessary stress. Have a conversation about what might help, and remain open to other options as the employee progresses with his or her treatment and recovery.

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