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I chose to work in my career as a Cancer Nurse Specialist because people with cancer need much more than treatment alone. There is a much wider picture which is crucial in caring for people with cancer and this is acutely important in the workplace.

I believe that HR professionals can make a powerful contribution to the ongoing care of people with cancer. We can’t always cure cancer but we can take positive action.

People with cancer are vulnerable. They need more time and more ‘tender loving care’. They require complex and unique guidance; and they need ongoing wellbeing advice and reassurance.

One in two of us will be touched by cancer in our lifetimes. We have come a long way in treatment and the good news is that most people will get better and return to work as positive and effective members of the team. There is so much value attached to your existing workforce; they are often irreplaceable and supporting them back into the workforce is extremely important.

A cancer diagnosis can be devastating so let’s be honest; the last thing they need is to worry about is work too. Being a supportive employer can help reduce their anxiety and give them the confidence to cope with cancer at work.

Managing the consequences can be a challenge for both employees and employers. HR professionals can support a) employees themselves and b) other managers and c) team members who will be affected by a cancer diagnosis. Here are my top pointers for what you should do to support both the individual and your organisation:  

1.Clear vision and open dialogue
Define your approach in advance with a clear strategy and policy and then tell the team. Make sure everyone understands how you will react and how you will ensure all staff are supported and valued. Employees with cancer are protected from discrimination in the workplace by the Equality Act 2010 although it is up you how you want your policy to work.

2.Be sensitive and empathise
The emotional and practical effects on the individual are likely to be the most immediate challenge to deal with. Having access to information and support for all staff involved is important so that they can resolve the uncertainty they will feel.

Encourage employees to inform their line manager and HR rep as soon as they feel able so that support and assistance can be made available.

As an HR Professional you will want to be supportive but may not know how to express this. You want to enquire after their welfare but avoid sounding as if you are pressuring the person to come back to work, or questioning their performance.

3.Define process and structure
Good communication of process and structure in advance will ensure clarity in your message and avoids employees being offered different levels of support depending on geography or hierarchy.

Don’t assume that someone with cancer will want to work less – they might want everything to remain the same and be able to deal with that.

4.Confidentiality and trust
The biggest piece of advice is to respect your employees’ confidentiality, and make sure that in any policy it is clear that the employer will respect the wishes of the individual.

With a cancer diagnosis an individual’s world will be turned upside-down, with their future thrown into uncertainty. Not wanting to speak up or engage their employer when they don’t know themselves what they may be able to do or what they need is understandable.

Your employees should know that with all the support available cancer is not a road they need to walk alone. Having a culture that encourages them to speak up early and get help and support in fighting the condition can relieve much of the burden.

5.Flexibility and communication are key
Making reasonable adjustments will depend on the employees’ needs and circumstances of the business. As the side effects and employee’s needs change, so should the workplace adjustments.       

Many employees find it difficult to adjust to ‘normal’ life following a diagnosis of cancer. When people return to work, the rest of the team will be delighted to see them. However, it’s understandable that in a fairly short amount of time they get used to having the person back again and don’t realise that they may be feeling tired or have other symptoms or side effects as a result of treatment.

Rebecca Minton, Cancer Nurse Specialist – HSC Health

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