How to Support an Employee with Cancer
If you’re reading this article, it’s likely an employee has just disclosed they have cancer. Your first instinct was probably to ask, “How can I help?” That’s a great answer—the employee who shared their cancer diagnosis was likely nervous to tell you. Many people with cancer are concerned that if their employer finds out about their diagnosis, they will lose their source of income. The first thing an employee usually wants in this conversation is reassurance their job (and, if applicable, associated health insurance benefits) is not at risk.
But what’s next? These tips can help you best support an employee during cancer journey.
Provide reasonable accommodations during cancer treatment.
Most employees can (and do) work through their cancer treatment, and many do so without anissue. In one study of over 1,400 cancer survivors, only 16% of men and 21% of women who worked through their cancer treatment reported limitations in their ability to work. But even those who are able to fulfill their job duties in full may need some help in doing so. Legally, employers must provide certain forms of help. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses with 15 or more employees to offer accommodations that do not cause “undue hardship” to the business to any employee who has a disabling illness. For a person with cancer, accomodations can include, but are not limited to:
- Flexible work hours for treatment or healthcare visits
- Breaks to take medication
- A private area to rest
- Adjustments to the work environment, like relocating a printer so the employee doesn’t have to walk up stairs to retrieve a copy
- The option to work from home (if possible) during periods where the employee is recovering or immunocompromised
- Temporarily or permanently adjusting certain tasks within the employee’s job description
- Using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take time off during treatment, if the employee is eligible
The American Cancer Society recommends supervisors talk with your company’s human resources department to determine what accommodations you are legally required to provide, as well as additional services offered by the company. These may include:
- Assistance with understanding health care, short-term disability and other employer-provided benefits
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Wellness programs
- Reimbursement for home office supplies or internet service
- Financial assistance, such as emergency assistance, donated vacation time from fellow employees, or the use of travel miles and hotel points for treatment travel
That doesn’t mean your employee will need (or want) all of these options. Offer, but do not insist; let the employee take the lead in telling you what is needed.
Provide practical support.
Instead of saying “Let me know if I can help,” state specific ways you’re willing to assist. Is your employee worried about missing meetings for a specific project or an important client while recovering from surgery? Offer to send email updates or schedule a weekly video call to catch up. People who are newly-diagnosed with cancer don’t always know exactly what they want—this is a new experience, after all. They may also feel uncomfortable asking for what they need, especially if they are concerned about accommodations becoming a burden on colleagues or the company.
If you have a good relationship with your employee, you may also offer assistance outside of the workplace. This can take many forms, from signing up to provide dinner one night as part of a meal train to providing transportation to and from appointments. Ask your employee if they are using the Jasper app, where people can sign up to help with such tasks. Do not drop in or give assistance unprompted, even if you think they need it. Always call or text ahead.
Be flexible and adaptable.
Doctors can generally predict what side effects are likely while undergoing a certain treatment, but the severity and duration of those side effects can vary widely from person to person. As such, an employee might assume they’ll be able to work through treatment without interruption, only to discover they do, in fact, need to take more time off or work from home.
It’s also important to note that some treatment effects are cumulative, so an employee may not experience side effects initially, but instead weeks or months later. Some even experience side effects, like fatigue or memory loss, years after treatment has concluded.
Don’t disclose without permission.
Aside from your company’s human resources department, you should not notify anyone else of your employee’s health status. In fact, it’s illegal to share information about an employee’s health status, even if clients ask questions about that person’s absence or other employees notice their colleague receiving accommodations. If a person chooses not to share their diagnosis with colleagues, that is their choice.
There are many reasons a person may not want to share their cancer diagnosis in the workplace. Some may not feel ready just yet, while others do not want to be looked upon with pity. Others fear they will be discriminated against, and still others wish to enforce a very clear boundary between their work life and their personal life. All of these are valid reasons for not sharing a cancer diagnosis, and should be respected as such.
Focus on the person, not the employee.
A cancer diagnosis can be scary. Though your relationship is centered on what you do together in the workplace, it’s important to recognize that they are a whole person going through a major life event. Your willingness to support them as a person - through accommodations, flexibility, and kindness.
More resources for employers:
Guidance on managing diagnosed employees, caregiving employees and co-workers.
Expert advice, interactive tools, and educational events on supporting employees with cancer.
Employer assistance with workplace healthcare programs and benefits.
Free consulting services for all employers about all aspects of job accommodations.