Exec Health: When a colleague has cancer

A recent Southern Cross Health Society survey of nearly 1500 adults showed that cancer is the most feared health condition of working age New Zealanders. Unfortunately having colleague or staff member with serious or terminal illness is not uncommon. As an employer, dealing with the challenges this can present in positive and sensitive way can make real difference to the sick person and their family, as well as other employees.

BE FLEXIBLE
It’s important to keep an open mind and understand that not everyone will want extended time off work during times of major illness. Aim to establish open and transparent communication with the employee and to find the solution that works best for them.
Some people want to keep working for financial reasons, some to maintain sense of normality and purpose. Others may look to work to divert their mind from the illness and to their relationships with colleagues to help them through their treatment.
Many organisations are now wired to accommodate employees affected by serious illness, and there are number of cases where employers have developed customised plans to help an employee return to work post-diagnosis.
One example is where an employee has wanted to continue working after being diagnosed with cancer. While receiving long-term treatment, the individual wanted to remain in the community that played such key part in their life. Their company was extremely flexible, allowing the employee to choose their hours week by week, depending on how they felt physically.
Job sharing is another option to lighten the load of an ill employee. Bear in mind, too, that people often enjoy social aspects of the workplace so include them in work social activities.
Sometimes returning to work is not the best option. In these cases, employers will need to sensitively discuss the options with the person.

PROVIDE SUPPORT
Sadly, there are times when person’s illness will be terminal, and employers have an important support role to play in these circumstances.
Initiatives such as sending care packs or offering assistance with housework are practical ways to ease the burden on the employee’s family. ‘Doing’ something can also help colleagues manage their own grief. If possible, extending this sort of support for some months is desirable – the comment is often made that families are overwhelmed by support initially, then it suddenly stops.
Almost every company in New Zealand will have an employee affected by long-term or terminal illness at some stage. With considerate and sensitive management, employers can help the employee, their family and colleagues through what is an incredibly stressful time.
Other ways to offer support during terminal illness or following the death of an employee include:
• Offering counselling services to staff and the family;
• Giving staff time off work to visit their colleague and attend the funeral; and
• Contributing to funeral costs.

Peter Tynan is chief executive of Southern Cross Health Society.

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