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How to Handle Serious Illnesses in the Workplace

4 Apr. 2017 Posted by rmetzner

Amy Haft, FEI Senior Account Manager

In the last six months, we’ve received several calls from managers asking for help in addressing employees with a serious illness at work, or employees with terminal illnesses who wish to continue working at some level.

Thanks to great advances in medical care, this is not an unusual request. More people with serious illnesses, especially cancer, are surviving and choosing to stay on the job both during and after treatment. They may do so because they love their job, or their identity is closely tied to their work. They may also need access to health insurance benefits and the support of their workplace family.

Most managers aren’t equipped to handle these situations, nor are they familiar with key issues such as what to expect when an employee has a serious illness; federal laws relating to cancer patient rights, discrimination and benefits; privacy laws; work strategies; and how to accommodate employees in the workplace.

There are many ways for managers to work with employees both during and following cancer treatment in particular. Two excellent resources to guide managers and human resource professionals through these challenges are Cancerandcareers.org, which has a manager’s kit, and Triagecancer.org, which provides information and links to federal laws, certification forms and a guide to reasonable accommodations. These resources also offer ideas for creating an accommodating work schedule. The best strategy is often a creative mix that adapts to the needs of both employee and employer as treatment progresses.

How to communicate—either to your employee with a serious illness, or with the employee’s co-workers—is also a common theme. Most people simply are not comfortable discussing this subject, nor do they know how to respond, what to say, or what not to say and still maintain a positive work environment for all. Employees will watch how managers react and interact with co-workers who have serious illnesses, and how an employer responds can engender loyalty and peace of mind as others see how someone with a serious illness is treated.

Before any kind of communication, the employee’s privacy must be taken into consideration. Let the employee set the tone. Some cancer survivors or those with a serious illness don’t want to focus on their illness, or be linked in people’s minds with the disease. Others are very open, speaking frankly with their boss or co-workers to address concerns, correct misinformation and decide how to work together. The best approach is the one that feels right to the employee.

An effective solution to feeling awkward or reluctant about communicating to or about an employee with a serious illness is to gain a clear understanding about the illness, have a list of reliable resources available, and be sensitive to the employee’s privacy and need for accommodation and support.

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