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Talking to your employees

We know from both research and business experience that good relationships and support at the workplace are very important in helping employees return to work more quickly and successfully. This can include the support that comes from colleagues and managers, who may find talking about cancer difficult.

When an employee is first diagnosed

When an employee is first diagnosed with cancer, they are typically under a lot of stress. They may be coping with their emotional reactions to the diagnosis and juggling work demands at the same time. They may need to take time off work for multiple urgent diagnostic tests and medical appointments. They may also be feeling unwell because of cancer which adds to the strain of emotionally coping and working at the same time. Informing an employer about a cancer diagnosis may be difficult for an employee, and some employees choose to keep it private for a host of reasons.

The supervisor may want to know more about how their employee is coping with the diagnosis to show support during this difficult time. The employer may want to ask the employee about how much time they may need so that the supervisor can plan the team’s workload. The employer may want to see if they have provided sufficient information on all benefits available to the employee at this time.

Setting a supportive tone in the beginning and maintaining communication at this critical time will help ease conversations between the employer and the employee for the rest of the absence and thus lay the groundwork for support and understanding. Communication may become strained if the employee perceives frequent contact as an obligation to be performed by a supervisor who is either overly formal or nervous. The same can be said of a questioning tone that is not empathetic or sensitive.

The employer and the employee may want to discuss with whom the employee agrees to share their diagnosis, if at all. Some employees choose to share nothing while others may tell everyone. It is the employee’s right to determine how much information they are comfortable disclosing and to whom. The employer’s role will be to safeguard the employee’s right to privacy.

Support from the employer could include:

  • identifying what employee benefits they may access, for example, vacation, sick leave, disability leave, unpaid leave, employee family assistance programs, critical illness benefits
  • determining what kind of accommodations they may need now or later
  • deciding whether they want help completing forms
  • reviewing any return to work program the company has in place
  • discussing next steps with benefit payment schedules, insurer’s decision timelines
  • setting up a communication plan with the employee so they know who will follow up with them and when they can expect them to do so. It will also inform them of when the next follow-up meeting will be. This can also include discussion on what information the employee and employer will receive during these calls.

Approaching the employee about an issue as sensitive as cancer requires preparation. For tips on talking to an employee just diagnosed with cancer, see Talking to your employee about cancer: A guide for managers and human resource professionals (PDF; Cancer Council – NSW Australia).

What employers are allowed to ask

When organizing a team’s workload and reallocation of duties during an employee’s absence or gradual return to work, the supervisor needs to balance the employee’s privacy rights with obtaining enough information to manage the team’s productivity. Although in certain cases employees are required to give details of a medical condition, there are limits on what employers can ask and what employees have to reveal. To clarify what employers and managers are legally allowed to ask in specific situations, it may be helpful to ask a non-profit organization that provides information on human rights or consult a human rights lawyer.

If the employee does not require accommodation, an employer has, in most cases, no legal right to know anything about the employee’s health.

This section is courtesy of James D. Heeney and Allison Buchanan, Robinson Heeney LLP:

If an employee requires accommodation, including time off for appointments, the employee may have to share normally confidential information with the supervisor or other staff, such as human resources personnel. While employers should limit requests for information to things reasonably related to the nature of the accommodation and only request what is needed to respond to accommodation requests, the following may still be asked:

  • the nature of the illness and how it manifests as a disability (which may include diagnosis)
  • whether the disability (if not the illness) is permanent or temporary, and the prognosis in that respect (i.e. the extent to which improvement is anticipated, and the time frame for the same)
  • the restrictions or limitations that flow from the disability (i.e. a detailed outline of what duties and responsibilities the employee can and cannot do, and possible alternative duties)
  • the basis for the medical conclusions (i.e. nature of illness and disability, prognosis, restrictions), including the examinations or tests performed (but not necessarily the test results or clinical notes in that respect)
  • the treatment, including medication (and possible side effects) that may impact the employee’s ability to perform their job, or interact with management, other employees or “customers”

Note: Prognosis refers to the extent to which improvement is anticipated, not the actual prognosis of cancer.

According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, employees are expected to:1

  • tell employers if they need accommodations to remain productive at work
  • cooperate with any experts that employers consult with for guidance about return to work
  • participate in discussions regarding possible accommodations
  • consider any reasonable accommodations that the employer proposes
  • work with the employer to manage the accommodation process
  • advise the employer of changes in accommodation needs

Helpful video:

In this video, If you run a small business from Macmillan Cancer Support, covers the importance of good communication when managing someone affected by cancer.