Why managers must face up to employees with cancer


It’s an awkward conversation to have but new research suggests that a fifth (21%) of managers with employees who have had cancer have never spoken to them about their illness.

The research, in which AXA PPP Healthcare surveyed 500 UK managers who manage someone who has or has had cancer, also revealed that 20% said they don’t know how to talk about cancer or other illnesses with employees.

A similar proportion (21%) said they don’t feel comfortable speaking about any illness with employees. Of those who have discussed the employee’s cancer with them, a fifth say they’re less comfortable discussing cancer than they are discussing other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. 

This is despite there being an estimated 2.1 million people living with cancer in the UK in 2010, set to rise to 4 million by 2030, according to the British Journal of Cancer. Therefore, actively managing employees with cancer – and talking about it – look likely to become more commonplace.

The study also found that 17% of managers who had an employee with cancer return to work admitted having told the employee’s colleagues about their cancer without discussing it with the employee because they thought their colleagues should know about it.

How to broach the subject

Talking about cancer can be hard and the fear of upsetting the employee, despite having the best intentions, can put managers off broaching the topic. Equally, it’s alarming that some managers are sharing details of the employees’ cancer with colleagues without first asking them what they want to share.

Having a frank and honest conversation with the affected employee can help managers understand whether or how they want to talk about their cancer and how and what they want the rest of their team to be told. It may sound simple but it can help employees retain control over what is an intensely personal matter and managers must remember that they should respect any request for confidentiality.

Look at behaviour change

As well as looking at how to deal with speaking about the subject the study also investigated the behaviour of managers towards employees who have returned to work after completing their cancer treatment and found that nearly two thirds (64%) said that they didn’t change how they managed the employee.

Of these, 41% said this was because they worried about the employee’s abilities and therefore decided to manage them softly by taking away all the pressure on them. 

The research clearly shows that managers could do more to support employees who are living with or beyond cancer. This includes talking with them to get a better understanding about what they may be going through and finding out what their organisation may offer to support a phased return or flexible working arrangements as well as information and support available to employees.

It’s important for managers to understand that returning to work after cancer can be a very daunting experience. It can take time to recover from any serious illness and each person will want to handle things differently. It’s also likely that their recovery to a new normality will be a rollercoaster – psychologically, emotionally and physically.

Therefore, managers should not expect a formulaic return to previous standards. Nor should they expect the same productivity levels straight away but should instead listen to what the employee needs and be flexible in the support they offer.

For further information and support around the effects of cancer from diagnosis and beyond, visit AXA PPP healthcare’s Cancer Centre and join the conversation using #LetsSpeakCancer.

Evelyn Wallace is cancer care operations manager at AXA PPP Healthcare.

This article was supplied by AXA PPP Healthcare.


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