Communicating the C word

23 June 2016 -


Talking about cancer is never an easy thing to do, but for managers taking a step out of the business and into the personal life of an employee, the conversation is particularly difficult

Guest blogger Gillian Hailstones

Managers often don’t know where to start when it comes to conversations about cancer. The sense of tragedy, of entering such personal, non-business territory, leaves them feeling lost.

The discomfort only exacerbates the uncertainty about what they can offer in terms of support from their organisation - they want to do something, to offer whatever’s possible and more - but what is that?

Despite the rising number of new cases (more than 350,000 each year according to Cancer Research UK, up 12% on the mid-1990s) there is a lack of planning by employers.

In the Cancer in the Workplace 2016 survey of 500 HR managers by Check4Cancer, 71% didn’t have any policies in place for communications and management of employees with a cancer diagnosis; around half thought line managers in their organisation were unprepared when it came to managing employees with cancer.

The reality is that staff dealing with cancer, first and foremost, want to be able to talk to a human being, to have very human conversations about what they’re facing and dealing with.

That’s the most important element of support that any manager can provide, the opportunity for an ongoing dialogue with someone they know they can trust and will listen. The same is true whether the diagnosis is themselves, a member of their family or close friend.

You may well be best placed to have those conversations, but it might be another manager or member of the team who can act as an intermediary for you.

If you’re having the conversations, don’t just stick to a script in your head. Be sensitive to individual needs and be responsive to their individual mood and needs, listen and encourage them to take a lead in talking about how they’re feeling both physically and emotionally.

Stay calm - but show you know it’s natural for them to be upset and express the range of emotions. Be patient and reassure them that silence is fine. They might want to use a joke as a means of coping with the stressful situation, but don’t be the one to initiate the humour.

Encourage them to speak freely and show you’re listening by prompting them to tell you more. Don’t jump in with advice or cliched responses like ‘everything will work out’, ‘I know lots of people who have recovered’ etc.

Open conversations are important because cancer isn’t one disease. There are around 200 different types of cancer, all with different effects and treatments. It’s straightforward for an organisation to set out a process around illness and absence with minimum expectations from employees, but when it comes to cancer there’s a grey area for the manager around what else can be offered above the minimum.

You need to understand in specific terms what the employee is going through: what the treatment will be, over what time period, how they’re feeling about what this means for their day-to-day working.

There’s an inevitable nervousness on both sides. The problem for managers is that they can feel like they also have a ‘police’ role, assessing impact on workflows, team performance, and the individual employee’s part in the effects.

And for the employee with cancer or coping with the fall-out from a family diagnosis they’re wondering what they should be sharing: should I tell them everything? If I admit to not being up the job at the moment, will that be held against me?

What’s needed is clarity, and that comes from having an agreed plan of support around cancer, tangible guidance on what kinds of workplace adaptations and flexibility can be offered; when it’s necessary to draw the line between keeping an employee at work and safety; resources available to help (HR, OH, an EAP service and staff with particular knowledge or experience); and what is available externally - the services like Maggie’s in providing advice to organisations and to individual employees and their families.

Remember that work isn’t the problem, it’s often part of the solution, an important part of the recovery of cancer patients, providing friendship, support, a sense of routine and normality after all they’ve been through.

So vocational rehab can be a really valuable part of improving wellbeing - as long as the basis of communications and management are there.

Gillian Hailstones is head of centre operations, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. The Cancer in the Workplace 2016 report can be downloaded from

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