Four ways to support men with cancer in the workplace

Line managers and HR departments should maintain open and meaningful communication with staff.
Line managers and HR departments should maintain open and meaningful communication with staff.

Joy Reymond looks at potential ways that the physical, mental and emotional changes of male employees with cancer can be managed in the workplace.

Supporting an employee with cancer can be challenging. Many staff, particularly male employees, can find it difficult to acknowledge or talk about such personal issues with their employer.

Employers can play a vital role in the recovery and return-to-work process for those with cancer in the workplace, but this can be hard without a clear steer from the person affected on how they want to be treated at work and what support they need

As a result, men in particular may be missing out on the support available to them at work. New research from health insurer Unum, in partnership with the cancer charity Maggie’s, found that two men in five who had had cancer and returned to work after treatment underestimated the physical, mental and emotional effects of the condition, such as fatigue or memory loss, and the impact that these may have on their work. Moreover, only 58% said they would feel comfortable speaking to their employer about help they might need.

While many employers have good processes in place to assist men with cancer, more must be done to encourage them to take advantage of the services available. So, what practical steps can companies take to ensure they do the utmost to provide the necessary encouragement?

Create an open and caring workplace culture

Many men struggle to talk with their employer about their cancer – in fact our research found that as many as one in 10 never tell their HR department about their diagnosis at all. It is therefore essential that employers create a caring and open culture to dispel stigma at work, show that help is available, and encourage staff with cancer to ask for the assistance they need. It is also important that line managers and HR maintain open and meaningful dialogue with staff beyond their diagnosis, during any periods when the individual is off work and when they return to the workplace, as the challenges and needs of employees will be different at each stage that they go through.

Get clued up on cancer

Unum’s research found that understanding from their employers is a common wish for men with cancer. This means that employers need a basic knowledge of the symptoms associated with different types of cancer and must recognise the potential limitations that the long-term consequences of cancer may have on an employee’s role in the workplace. This is especially true of the secondary symptoms associated with cancer or its treatment, which may not always be obvious or visible, such as fatigue, memory loss or mental health issues.

Agree a tailored return-to-work plan

One of the most tangible steps that employers can take to support staff with cancer if they choose to come back to work is to agree a tailored return-to-work plan. Many male sufferers may find it difficult to anticipate how their abilities and stamina in the workplace could change after cancer, so it is important to phase their return to work, make sure they build up their hours gradually and tailor the plan to their specific needs. Flexibility is very important and employers may need to think about making adjustments to working hours and responsibilities. In some cases, employees may not be suited to the role that they were in before diagnosis, in which case employers might consider what other opportunities there are for them within the business.

Upskill line managers on dealing with cancer in the workplace

Line managers are often on the front line when it comes to managing employees with cancer, but many may not have prior experience or formal training. Equipping line managers with the skills they need to begin conversations and support men with cancer is crucial, especially as many may not feel confident initiating these conversations themselves. There is plenty of third-party support and advice out there to help with this.

For example, Maggie’s and Unum run free workshops in Maggie’s centres across the UK to educate employers on how best to support staff with cancer. This is also something staff value – 79% of men with cancer thought it would be helpful for their employer to have access to expert advice on how to support them back into the workplace.

Every case of cancer is different, and every employee affected will have different aspirations and abilities post-diagnosis and treatment. But communication, understanding and support are key to making sure that every employee has the tailored plan they need at work.

The benefits of getting this right can be huge. For many people with cancer, getting back to work can be incredibly important in terms of regaining a sense of normality, purpose and self-esteem, and employers can play a key part in helping them make this a reality.

About Joy Reymond

Joy Reymond is head of rehabilitation services at Unum.
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