What To Do When an Employee is Diagnosed With Cancer

Two business people meeting.The first week of April is National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week. This is a good time to review your company’s policies toward accommodating both young and older employees alike who are being treated for cancer.

There is a high probability that someone in your organization will receive a cancer diagnosis this year. According to data from the National Cancer Institute, almost 40 percent of men and women will manage living with cancer at some point during their lifetime. Other studies show that some forms, such as colorectal cancer, are increasing for millennials and Gen Xers.

It’s critical that businesses develop a clear approach for these employees that balances workplace accommodation and business continuity with empathy.

Here are five key steps to keep in mind:

Explain the Benefits They’ll Receive

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be stressful. If an employee you manage discusses their situation with you, guide them to HR first. They’ll need to know the benefits they can access such as health insurance, disability insurance, and flexible work options — as well as the steps they’ll need to take.

If you offer disability insurance, you will be providing a tremendous service to your employees by helping them receive a paycheck if they need to take time off work. The Health and Productivity Benchmarking survey for 2016 from the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that cancer is the second most common cause of long-term disability claims and the fifth most common cause of short-term disability claims.

There are also protections for workers that your business needs to honor. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers who have disabilities such as cancer and are able to work.

An employee may also qualify for family and medical leave protection under federal, state, county and/or city statutes, which can offer eligible workers up to three months of job-protected, unpaid leave per year. (The employee can request this leave on full-time, part-time, or intermittent basis.) And some employers go a step further and provide paid leave to employees for their own serious medical conditions.

Let the Employee Lead the Conversation About Disclosure

Employees will vary greatly in how — and whether — they want to share their diagnosis with you or their coworkers. (Workers are only required to give detail to the designated person in your company — or a third-party administrator — about why they need workplace accommodations.) Some people will appreciate having everyone know, while others will prefer to keep things confidential. This is a personal issue; it’s also a legal one. Employers need to protect medical privacy as outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The manager should check what the employee would prefer, and help to facilitate the conversation. If they send out a memo on behalf of the employee, let them approve it first. If the employee prefers to not mention the diagnosis, have clear procedures in place so that everyone can be on the same page.

Ask Them What Support They’ll Need

An incisive article by executive coach Anne Sugar in Harvard Business Review encourages managers to take the lead in forming a work plan for the employee. Managers can do this themselves or identify a small team to work with the employee on the plan, so the workload is evenly distributed.

Cancer treatment often includes visits to treatment facilities and health care providers, so you will need to accommodate their time away from the workplace as well as time the worker might request to recover from procedures. Be realistic about this work plan. The HBR article points out that Anne Sugar expected to be out of work for six to eight weeks, but ended up being out for 12 weeks. She recommends creating a “Plan B,” so in the event that a more long-term recovery is needed, action steps are clear.

Establish a Point Person for Communication

If the employee takes time off on a full-time, part-time, or intermittent basis, identify who will be their main “point person.” This individual will funnel requests and communications, and ensure that your company is not taxing your employee with too much information. Bear in mind, however, that if an employee takes time under their FML leave, the employer should not check in on them regularly with the exception of letting the worker know when their leave will end.

Be Empathetic

Finally, in all of these encounters, lead with empathy and clarity. Garth Callaghan, an IT recruiter for a division of ManpowerGroup who went through various diagnoses within his job told the Society for Human Resource Management, “Don’t forget that this person is scared for their life. Be empathetic. Use words that show that you’re on the same side as the employee.”

By following these steps and planning a comprehensive action plan, your preparation will directly benefit the employee. It will also create a culture that is compassionate and well-informed.