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Keeping in touch while the employee is off work


Keeping in touch with an employee on leave improves their chance of successfully returning to work. When supervisors show their support by keeping in touch, the employee may feel more comfortable and less reluctant to return to work. Keeping in touch also reminds the employee that their job is there for them when they return. Before an employee goes on leave, it can be helpful to ask how and when they want to be contacted and whether they want to attend regular meetings and training, if their treatment schedule and recovery allows. (This paragraph adapted from Managing Through Cancer, Cancer and Careers.)

Sometimes employees feel pressured by regular contact from the workplace to come back to work when they are still coping with the stresses of cancer and treatment. Hearing about the day-to-day challenges at work may add to their stress. It may be helpful for supervisors to reassure the employee that they are just checking in to ensure their wellbeing and asking whether they want to know what is happening at work.

If an employee feels pressured by regular contact, sending get well cards may be an alternative way to show support and remind them that their job is there for them. It can also be helpful to invite the employee to workplace social events such as holiday parties, weddings or baby showers, staff barbeques and picnics. These invitations will help employees on leave to stay connected with their colleagues. This connection is important to foster because support from colleagues plays a very important part in a successful return to work.

If the employee is reluctant to keep in touch with supervisors or managers, consider asking whether someone who has a good relationship with the employee could be the point of contact instead. This person can fill in the employee on what is happening at work and invite them to social events and celebrations. (This paragraph adapted from Supporting Return to Work Success, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.)

Related: Do’s and don’ts for keeping in touch with employees on sick leave – Health and Safety Executive, UK.

Supervisor’s role in managing discussion of cancer with work colleagues

Cancer survivors vary widely in how much information they prefer to share with co-workers. Some may want to tell everyone they have cancer and share many details, while others prefer to tell no one. Some may want to tell only people they trust or are close to at work. If an employee shares this information with a manager, it must be kept confidential unless the employee gives consent to share it. (This paragraph adapted from A guide for managing the return to work, from the Canadian Human Rights Commission.)

It is not unusual for employees to keep their medical condition private.1 They may want to avoid:

  • being seen as different by others
  • drawing attention to changes in their body (e.g., mastectomy, ostomy bag)
  • colleagues’ pity
  • being perceived as not able to do their job
  • fear of potential discrimination and stigma
  • becoming emotional in discussing cancer

To learn more about stigma towards cancer patients in the workplace see Dr. Mary Stergiou-Kita’s webinar The Big “C”: Cancer, Stigma, and Workplace Discrimination.

To read more about the disclosure dilemmas employees with cancer face, see Who gets to know: How to exercise your power of “disclosure.”

Find out what the employee wants to share, or not, with colleagues

Here are some ideas for sharing information about cancer. If an employee discloses their cancer to a manager, the manager can first ask whether the employee wants anyone else to know. If yes, ask:

  • who would the employee like to share this information with (the manager, trusted colleagues, everyone)
  • how they want the news to be shared (e.g., in a meeting, email, individually)
  • whether the employee wants to share the news or have the supervisor do it
  • whether the employee wants to be present
  • how much information should be shared
  • when and how the employee wishes to receive contact from their co-workers

Once the above has been clarified, the supervisor and employee can plan what will be said.

If the employee does not want to disclose their cancer diagnosis to colleagues, the supervisor could say in a staff meeting:

“I just wanted to take a minute to share that Jane is experiencing medical problems. She may be experiencing fatigue. Work assignments may need to be altered, and I will keep everyone informed.”

(This section adapted from Managing Through Cancer, Cancer and Careers.)

If the employee wants the supervisor to disclose the cancer, the supervisor could say:

“Jane has asked me to share with you that she is coping with cancer and may need time off for now. When she returns, she will need her work tasks to change a bit.”

Further reading: Managing cancer in the workplace: An employer’s guide to supporting staff affected by cancer – Macmillan at Work.

If the employee asks the supervisor to disclose, the supervisor may want to ask the employee how they would like colleagues to approach them about the news. The employee may need help planning how they will respond to co-workers’ questions.

A manager describes how he works with cancer survivors to plan:1

“I often prepare survivors to think about how they’re going to respond to the questions and what they’re comfortable sharing or not sharing. Then they’re prepared, as they come into the workplace, to answer questions that are inevitably asked, and they know their rights to their own privacy.”

While some employees with cancer may appreciate verbal support from others and inquiries about their wellbeing and treatment plans, others may find these discussions difficult. If a cancer survivor says that they do not feel comfortable talking about their cancer experience at work, it’s important to respect that wish. A supervisor can pass on the employee’s preferences to colleagues as previously mentioned.2

If the employee does not want anyone else to know:

  • Reassure the employee that their privacy will be respected.
  • Always speak to the employee in private.
  • Create a strategy to meet their privacy needs should word get out.2

Managing co-workers’ questions while maintaining the privacy of the employee with cancer

The supervisor may know the employee’s medical condition, restrictions and limitations, as well as their needs for accommodation and time off but have to keep this information confidential. This can make it difficult for the supervisor to deal with team members’ questions about the employee’s absence, reallocation of work tasks or other accommodations that allow the employee to continue working.

Unfortunately, without understanding the employee’s health situation, colleagues may negatively interpret accommodations and time off as special treatment. This interpretation may lead to resentment, particularly if the co-workers’ workload or overtime increases because of the employee’s absence and there is no plan to address the increase. It is important to be open to co-workers’ concerns about the impact on workload on them.

Managers can address colleagues’ concerns by:3

  • identifying and recognizing the shifts in responsibilities that have occurred
  • providing a time frame for how long these changes will last
  • providing information on changes in schedule, work duties, and types of accommodations
  • sharing a plan to address the workload increases (e.g., increase staffing) if these changes are likely to last for some time
  • highlighting that accommodation is not only legally required but contributes to a caring workplace
  • reminding co-workers that tolerance and cooperation at work may benefit them in the future if they need accommodation
  • informing them that harassment based on an employee’s illness or disability will not be tolerated

It may be helpful to invite employees to ask questions or voice concerns about the reallocation of work. If the supervisor sets the tone for collaboration among team members, this can influence how the returning person will be treated by fellow employees and whether the return to work plan will succeed. (Views of employees on the role that employers should play in return to work – Return to Work Knowledge Base)

Other resources: