Alex Perry: How to support a colleague affected by cancer

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How to support colelagues diagnosed with cancer

With someone diagnosed with cancer every two minutes in the UK, the chances are that either you or someone you know has been affected by it. With improving treatment and survival rates, supporting those returning to work after cancer is an increasing demand on businesses.

Cancer can be a difficult topic to broach in the workplace; not everyone feels comfortable or confident when it comes to discussing health issues or sick leave with colleagues. That’s why it’s more important than ever that HR professionals and leaders have the knowledge and resources to look after their people effectively and create an environment that adapts to individual needs. Many people with cancer are keen to keep up with their working lives. The sense of structure and routine, as well as the social aspects, can be important to maintaining a sense of normality. By putting some simple strategies into place, HR managers can make the workplace as supportive as possible at what is a difficult time both mentally and physically.

Removing barriers to diagnosis and treatment

The biggest thing that makes the difference in cancer treatment is catching and treating it early. Offering employees access to fast, high quality diagnosis and treatment through health insurance is a common way that many businesses support their people in the first place. A major issue in early diagnosis is that people often ignore or downplay their symptoms; some can’t find the time to see a GP or feel embarrassed about discussing their symptoms. Recent Bupa research found that one in four employees who have experienced a potential cancer symptom have delayed seeking medical help due to embarrassment, while nearly half a million have avoided going to the doctor altogether. Giving employees different ways of accessing medical help is key. This is why Bupa developed its Cancer Direct Access service, which gives customers who are worried about a potential symptom access to specialist diagnostics without the need for GP referral. We have supported thousands of customers this way, many of whom have then needed to go on for treatment.

A tailored strategy

There isn’t a standard template for supporting colleagues with cancer, which is why businesses need to work through how best to support their people on an individual basis. Managers and HR professionals are best placed to help make this happen by developing a personalised action plan, including lifestyle advice designed to promote secondary prevention and staying healthy, and offering assurance that they can access treatment whenever they need it, without cost or time limits. HR professionals and management should try to avoid making the automatic assumption that an employee will want an extended period of absence while undergoing treatment. Some people feel that staying at work is an important source of stability, which helps them through their treatment and recovery. Indeed we have on occasion even arranged for some customers to receive their chemotherapy at work, which has helped them balance their treatment and desire to stay engaged in their work.

Communication within the workplace

If an employee at your company has been diagnosed with cancer, or if they are concerned they may have cancer, it’s important to create an environment where they feel they can talk openly about it. Use existing internal communication channels to provide educational material on cancer and tips on how to talk about it in an open way. Bupa has created a simple Cancer Check-CUP guide which can be incorporated into health and wellbeing guidance for employees, to help them spot any changes to health that are unexplained or persistent. It may also be useful to provide teams with information or interactive sessions to educate them on cancer and to dispel common myths.

Knowing what to say

Being available to a colleague diagnosed with cancer is often more important than trying to say the right thing all the time. Every situation is different, so let your colleague decide how much they want to talk about their cancer and try to find ways that you can make their lives a bit easier. It’s also really important that your colleague is aware of any protocols or responsibilities during this time such as claiming sick pay or getting a ‘fit note’ from their GP.

Flexible working

In the majority of cases, those undergoing treatment for cancer will need time out of the office for treatment, rest and recuperation. Returning to work after an extensive period of absence can prove challenging for an employee and employer alike. It’s not uncommon for someone who is returning to work after cancer to have mixed emotions – from relief and excitement, to feeling worried about whether or not they will be able to cope. HR teams and managers should consider getting in contact with a colleague before they return to work, so they can understand what support they may need. Small adjustments such as flexible hours, working form home or encouraging short breaks for rest or to get some fresh air, can make a real difference. There’s no one-size fits all approach to supporting a colleague with cancer, but with both diagnosis and survival rates increasing, it will be increasingly important for companies to have strategies in place to support their people.

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About Alex Perry

Chief Executive of Bupa Insurance, and Bupa Insurance Services Ltd, the UK’s leading health insurer and one of the major international medical insurance providers in the industry. He joined Bupa in 2008, leading the UK Clinics business, and worked in the UK Insurance business from 2010 in a number of senior roles before becoming CEO in 2016. He was previously a Principal at Marakon Associates, the strategic advisory firm, and before that held a number of senior commercial roles at First Choice Holidays. He has an MBA with distinction from INSEAD and a degree from Oxford University.

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