Supporting Co-workers with Cancer

by Ann Fry, MSW, PCC

The best companies view their employees as appreciable assets, central to a company’s Triage Cancer Blog Supporting CoWorkersvalue proposition. But even the best companies, the ones that provide their employees with the most fertile ground for professional growth and increased contribution, are affected by the reality of cancer in the workplace.

Studies show that most employees with cancer want to continue to work. The issue, then, becomes one of preparing for the conversations and adjustments that need to take place in the workplace.

Here are some potential questions that can arise:

  • How do supervisors and managers support their employees with cancer, providing accommodations while making sure the work still gets done?
  • What are helpful things co-workers can do for the employee with cancer? What needs can they fulfill?
  • How can supervisors and managers facilitate conversations among co-workers, while still protecting the privacy of their employees?
  • What are the conversations and things that employees with cancer should not have to share with their co-workers?

A supervisor or manager is usually the first person the employee comes to with news of a cancer diagnosis. The employee depends on the manager to be a conduit, a support person within the organization. However, many supervisors and managers are not trained or comfortable with how they should respond to the employee’s news. Some supervisors and managers may feel the need to engage a Human Resources representative in the conversation. Supervisors and managers can utilize their best listening skills and ask questions about the employees’ needs (e.g. time off, shortened workdays, more frequent breaks, working from home, etc.).

If the employee wants their co-workers to know about the diagnosis, a manager might suggest discussing at a group meeting or, depending on the work environment, the employee might want to have one-on-one conversations with co-workers. If the employee prefers now to share their diagnosis with others at work, managers must respect those wishes.

If the employee has shared their diagnosis with their co-workers, what are some ways they can be helpful?

There are many ways in which co-workers can help employees with cancer.  But it is important that they take their cues from the employee. They can:

  • Help to create a sense of normalcy
  • Avoid gossiping
  • Show a willingness to help and pitch in
  • Share their sick leave days if that is allowed
  • Provide an ear to listen (if the co-worker wants to talk)
  • Make telephone calls or visits when the co-worker is away from work
  • Offer to help outside of work when appropriate (errands, groceries, etc.)

As a cancer survivor, let me express a few final notions and tips to consider when supporting an employee diagnosed with cancer:

  • Everyone’s illness experience is different
  • No one expects to “get” it and no one knows how to handle it
  • A relapse of cancer can also create a “not knowing” experience
  • Don’t tell them “everything is going to be alright”

Prepared with this information, I believe that when an employee is facing a serious illness, there is an opportunity for co-workers, supervisors, managers, and the entire organization to show compassion, understanding, and friendship.

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