A cancer diagnosis can impact our work, career, and financial security. Making adjustments to your work-life and being received in the right way by your colleagues and manager can make a big difference in your overall mental health and wellbeing. Here are a few things to think about regarding how to approach cancer at the workplace – whether you’re a colleague, manager, or living with cancer yourself.
For the diagnosed: Cancer, career, and the workplace
- Get informed about your finances and protection agreements. Understand what compensation or insurance options you have – both during and after cancer treatment. Taking action on this and securing some level of financial security is vital for your mental health and easing the added stress of cancer. Learn more about finances and cancer.
- Talk to your manager early on. Keep in mind your company culture and that this may impact how/when you decide to tell your manager or their response. Take a tab on what would feel comfortable for you. Regardless of if you need time off from your job, it’s helpful for your manager to know what you’re experiencing to help you find solutions to better manage both aspects of your life.
- Choose if you want to share with other colleagues or not. Who you decide to tell and when is up to you, except for the HR department or closest manager.
- Ask a friend or family member to contact local unions to get the latest about protection agreements. Some people would prefer to keep their cancer diagnosis private, while others want to or need to share with colleagues. Who you decide to tell and when is up to you, except for the HR department or closest manager.
- Practice acceptance. If you have to take a break from work, the abrupt change can be hard, especially if you genuinely enjoy your job, care about what you do, or are career-driven. Work with acceptance around having to take a break from work and focus your thoughts on the present. Remember that going through cancer is work in itself, it’s just unpaid work. So don’t think of yourself as “unproductive”.
- Replace old routines. To maintain some level of control and normalcy, be intentional about which routines you want to implement and how you aim to structure your days that bring you a sense of accomplishment and joy.
- Be curious about the future. According to Cancer And Careers, mental health experts who work with people who survive cancer and cancer treatment tend to seek out more creative and meaningful work and leisure. If you have the energy, be curious and sit with your thoughts. Whatever living a meaningful life looks like to you, allow yourself to continue to dream and plan for the future. It may be exactly the motivation you need to push through another round of chemo or radiation. Learn more about how curiosity can help during cancer.
- Remember that cancer isn’t the end of the story. It’s part of it. Let it shape, guide, and change you. Train your mind to see the possibilities, in the present and for the future, and in so doing, improve your mental health and empower yourself. Here’s how to improve your mental health throughout cancer.
For a colleague or manager of someone who has cancer
- If you’re their manager, be solution-oriented and adaptable. Most people can work throughout cancer treatment, even those who are terminally ill. Many people want to keep working. Of course there’s a financial imperative, but beyond that, work can be a welcome dose of normality while cancer can take over every other aspect of someone’s life. Make it easier for them to continue working if that’s what they want. For example, if it’s possible for them to do their job from home, this flexibility can be helpful if they’re experiencing side effects such as fatigue, changed food intake, or other side effects that you want to care for in the privacy of your own home. Another reality of life with cancer is carving out the time for regular doctor appointments, and check-ups. Allowing these during work hours can help ease their burden and worry, making them less stressed and more loyal employees.
- Offer support and be understanding. Something we hear a lot of people talk about is “chemo brain” which is a common term used to describe what some people experience after chemotherapy – thinking and memory problems that can occur during and after cancer treatment. This means that if you’ve gone through chemotherapy, you may forget that something’s already been discussed, or what decision was made. Oftentimes, upon reminder, you remember. Chemo brain fades with time, but can be frustrating to experience. Learn about what your colleague is going through so that you can support them accordingly.
- Create a safe space for your colleague to open up. A fear of alienation, being a burden, and feeling misunderstood can cause communication issues. Cancer is a taboo subject that many people don’t know how to approach or handle, and oftentimes when people who have cancer open up, others feel uncomfortable and express this discomfort or sadness through pity. This is unhelpful. Instead, stay open, listen, and be real.
- Be normal and genuine in your concern. Show genuine care but don’t pity them or talk around the subject. People with cancer are still people who want to have normal conversations and talk about what’s happening in their lives. This may include cancer, but it’s not exclusively cancer.
- Be patient. Understanding that cancer is not a “it’s here, now it’s gone” kind of sickness. It’s also not just a physical experience but also mental, social, and psychological. After cancer treatment, patients face a new normal where they may feel or look different, and the fear of the cancer returning will occupy their thoughts. How this translates into someone’s experiences at work will depend on the individual, but they’ll need to know they have their employer’s support in the long term. Just because someone is back at work and physically in better shape, the mental and physical implications can last a long time.
- Help your colleague feel like themselves. Speak and joke with them as usual, and invite them to social gatherings. Let them decide what they can or cannot do – don’t predetermine that for them.
- Offer what you can to help. Questions like “is there anything I can do?” leaves people having to ask for help, guess what it is you can help with, or feel like a burden. Whatever it is that you feel you can do, offer that specifically.
- Avoid empty phrases or promises. Don’t say that everything will be okay if you don’t know that it will. Say that you’ll be there for them, stay open, listen, and welcome the discomfort of not always knowing what to say.