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What to Do When Your Employee Receives a Cancer Diagnosis

A nurse is talking to a patient in a hospital room.

When Heidi Bimrose was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47, she informed her supervisor of her treatment plan and the dates when she would be out of the office for medical appointments.

Bimrose knew the routine.

As director of health and productivity at insurance provider Unum Group, she works with large employers to identify trends and workforce solutions related to disability and absence—including strategies that focus on accommodating employees who have illnesses such as cancer.

It can be hard for a manager to know what to say or do when an employee shares such shattering news. Let the employee take the lead in the conversation and ask the person if—or how—the team should be informed.

"[It] is that employee's decision to make about what they want to reveal to their co-workers," and their wishes should be respected, Bimrose told SHRM Online.

If the employee doesn't want others to know but treatment requires a schedule or job modification, the manager can explain to the employee's teammates that the employee needed to adjust his or her schedule or that the employee's duties have changed.

Bimrose's employer allowed her to change her work hours so that she could undergo chemotherapy on Friday afternoons. This gave her the weekend to recover from the treatment.

"A big thing employers don't think about is the number of [medical] appointments that an employee will be having—for tests, lab work, doctor visits," Bimrose said. It's important that the employer is sensitive to that, she noted.

Employees often are absent from work due to their cancer treatments. Additionally, severe pain and fatigue, and the debilitating side effects of many treatments, may prevent the employee from performing many types of tasks. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer is required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with illnesses such as cancer who are still able to work. An accommodation can include simple, practical things such as altering the work schedule or allowing the employee to take a longer lunch break to attend a cancer support group meeting, according to the WebMd website,.

[SHRM members-only how-to policy: How to Handle an Employee's Request for Accommodation]

Bimrose offered the following suggestions to managers who have an employee who has been diagnosed with cancer: 

  • Identify the organization's benefits, work/flex policies and services, such as employee assistance programs services. 
The manager likely will then refer the employee to HR to learn about related benefits and how to file for disability or leave benefits. More than 40 forms of cancer automatically qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. The Council for Disability Awareness lists cancer among the top 10 causes of disability, and Unum says it's the second-leading cause of disability claims, behind musculoskeletal-health issues.

  • Ask the employee what support he or she may need to do the job. There may be job restrictions and limitations during treatment and recovery. 
Bimrose worked from home during much of the time she underwent treatment to limit her exposure to germs. When her job required her to travel, her employer allowed her to participate in phone- and Web-based meetings instead.

Bimrose thinks an employee who is on medical leave is more likely to remain engaged and return to work sooner if the employer has stayed in touch, noting that maintaining a sense of normalcy is a big part of keeping the employee engaged.

However, managers should be aware that an employee who has worked enough hours to be eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is entitled to a 12-week leave of absence per year. The employer should not check on the employee except near the end of the leave to notify the employee that it will be ending soon.

If the employee is taking leave under the ADA—which sometimes begins at the end of leave taken under the FMLA—communicating with the employee becomes more important. The manager will want to find out how much leave the employee plans to take. However, even under the ADA, communication with the employee should be limited.

It's also important to be mindful of employees who are caregivers and may be missing work to take a loved one to the doctor. The Caregiver Action Network estimates that during any given year, more than 65 million people in the U.S. spend about 20 hours each week caring for an ill, disabled or aged family member or friend.

The caregiver's situation should be kept confidential unless the employee stipulates otherwise, Bimrose said. The employer should recognize, she added, that just like an employee who is sick, the caregiver also needs workplace support.   

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