As an employer, have you supported someone touched by an illness? Do you know how to anticipate and plan a return to work? How should you communicate with the employee during the sick leave? What else should you consider?
The Information Kit, produced by the Association of Cancer Patients in Finland, offers information for Supervisors and Managers and concrete tools to support their work. Make sure to download the Kit and check out below for tips on what to say to someone affected by illness, what to avoid and how to plan for a return to work. The information also applies to other than cancer-related absences from work.
Download the Information Kit (pdf file)
A big thank to Lingoneer for the translation and Crystal Nuuttila for proofreading. Layout design is by Milart.
Text: Emma Andersson, Association of Cancer Patients in Finland
Supervisor in an important role
During my sick leave, my colleagues set up a WhatsApp group entitled One for all, and all for one.Feedback from a cancer survivor in 2019
There are situations where a Supervisor comes across difficult personal matters of Employees. You can best prepare by thinking about procedures in advance or mock dialogues. This helps you to communicate and may prevent situations where you might say something that could offend someone or be considered inappropriate. It’s best to find a peaceful space for the discussion without excess noise or others being around.
How to support an Employee touched by illness?
- Support here refers to a discussion, being present, offering help or information, but also to taking care of statutory obligations.
- You can invite the Employee to an office party, coffee meetup or team meetings during the sick leave. They might be happy to participate.
- If you talk about the illness during the work day, you can suggest going for a walk or reserving a quiet space. Sometimes the movement itself may defuse an emotional or tense situation.
- If you feel you need support yourself, you can contact your own Supervisor, Human Resources or you can consult patient and disability organizations or the Advice Service by the Cancer Society of Finland.
- Feel free to ask the Employee about how you can support them and agree on it together. As a Supervisor, you can suggest different options, if the Employee has no personal wishes. The situation and wishes may change during the illness or treatments, so be prepared to respect changing circumstances.
- Often cancer is an illness that cannot be treated with the sick leave only. Some wish to work during the treatments or the sick leave can be short, but the recovery period or the late effects caused by treatments may continue for a longer period of time. There may be need to adjust work after the Employee returns to work.
- Agree on how you deal with the workload during the sick leave and discuss this with the Employee. Once the sick leave is over, agree how the Employee continues to work. Organizing this might take some time.
- When the Employee returns to work from the sick leave, the person might feel able to work. Consider, however, that the illness might affect some persons long after getting ill and this might affect the mental well-being afterwards. Additionally, the process of having gotten ill might take time. Be prepared for this as well.
Tips on what to say
- You can say out loud that you don’t know what to say at the moment.
- You can start by saying “I really appreciate it that you’re sharing this with me” or “I don’t know what or how to express it, but I want you to know that I’m there for you”.
- Depending on how much the Employee wants to tell themselves, you can ease the situation by saying e.g. “We’ll make things work” or “Work as much as you’re able to”. This may reduce extra stress on how to manage the workload.
- It’s easier to communicate when you know the Employee.
- If you feel you need a timeout, you can ask “Can we get back to this today in the afternoon or tomorrow in a more quiet space?”
- A good question can also be: “How are your own thoughts on how the treatments could affect your health and work ability?”
What Employees appreciate is staying in contact, asking about how they’re doing, talking about something else than cancer, and having a sense of belonging to the work community during their sick leave.Employer feedback on how their employee benefited from support (Survey for employers, September 2019)
Examples of encouraging conversations
- Employee: I got a call from the doctor. I have cancer.
Employer: I’m really sorry to hear that. How are you? You don’t need to tell me more than what you want.
Employee: I’m okay considering the circumstances.
Employer: Is there something I can do? Would you like to meet?
Employee: I’m gonna meet with the oncologist tomorrow. Then I’ll know more. [Opens one’s heart]. I’m happy to come after I’ve seen the doctor.
Employer: I’ll see you tomorrow!
- Employer: Would you like to start your sick leave immediately or continue working?
Employee: The workload should be reorganized.
Employer: [You can tactfully ask questions, depending on how much the employee wishes to share and what information is available and in what extent the Employer is familiar with cancer in general.]
Employer: I’m nor aware of all the obligations, but I’ll find out.
What to avoid saying
- Be tactful, don’t start by asking how long the sick leave is going to last. With time you’ll find out.
- Don’t share your own thoughts or experiences about cancer. By sharing you may belittle the Employee’s experience.
- Using the word ‘healthy’ in a wrong context can cause the Employee to fear for a recurrence or its effects.
- Avoid saying these real life examples:
- “We really don’t have money to hire a temp. / How am I ever going to find a substitute?”
- “If you’ll be gone for long, we have to make so many arrangements. It may be that your colleagues need to do all your work in the future, so let’s see what happens.”
- “Send all the needed documents to the HR. Well, you certainly caused us great distress.”
- “Would you mind finding a temp yourself, as you know your work tasks best? You’ll take care of the induction training as well, right? / You have to share your work tasks with your colleagues.”
- “Now you’ll just fight your way through cancer. Treatments have developed so much, you’ll come back fixed and in a radiating state.”
- “We want you back, but you have to be healthy.”
- “There’s the spirit, you’ll be fine.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “My neighbor also got cancer and everything went fine / there were terrible complications. This and that person lost their lives to cancer.”
- “Well, things could always be worse!”
- “You could get hit by a car any day now.”
Planning a return to work
- Late effects caused by cancer or treatments may show up with a delay. Also, the illness doesn’t affect everyone’s work ability. The Employee might still be the same professional, but they might e.g. get tired more easily or the office noise can disturb their concentration.
- It’s good advice to listen to the Employee’s own wishes and when necessary make adjustments, e.g. by shortening work hours or offering a space in a more quiet place outside the open office.
- Some return to work through a training try-out (“työkokeilu” in Finnish) or vocational rehabilitation (“ammatillinen kuntoutus” in Finnish).
- Many appreciate an open discussion on available solutions in relation to the Employee’s situation in a three-party meeting (Employer, occupational health care provider and Employee).
- If there are restrictions to what work tasks can be done, it’s best to consider work tasks through abilities rather than disabilities.
Good to know as an Employer
- Rehabilitation and adaptation training courses (“kuntoutuskurssit” in Finnish) by Kela and Cancer Associations in Finland
- The 30-60-90 rule on follow-up of sick leaves
- Occupational rehabilitation (e.g. Kela, Employee Pension Insurance companies)
- Partial sickness allowance
- Disability pension and rehabilitation subsidy
- Training try-out
- Supporting work capacity
- Assistive devices
- Occupational health services
Why is supporting a return to work so important?
- Working-age persons form one in three out of all cancer diagnoses (appr. 11 000 persons annually in Finland). At the moment there are over 200 known types of cancer: Treatments and their effects are individual, so are life circumstances. Even with the same diagnosis the situation may be very different for two persons. Over half of all cancer survivors return to work within one year from diagnosis.
- Work is for many an important part of their identity. Supporting their return to work can be part of rehabilitation.
- There are societal and economic aspects as well as savings in disability pensions if people are able to return to work.
- Considering Employee wishes, you can start planning a return to work right after the diagnosis.
- The bottom line for Employers and colleagues is to stay in contact. Having a feeling of being cared for gives a sense of belonging to the work community.
- Together with occupational health care you can map the work ability and adjust the workload if need be.
The role of instructions
Sometimes the supervisor is the first to hear about a cancer diagnosis – even before family members. Often a call, a message or a knock on the door may come suddenly without a possibility to make preparations. The situation can be new for the Employee as well, they may not have had time to adjust to the diagnosis or find out how the treatment path is going to look like or what the illness brings in the coming months.
It’s important to offer up-to-date guidelines for supervisors, the Management or Human Resource professionals on how to act in a situation where someone tells they have cancer.
Whom to contact with further questions?
The Cancer & Work project team is happy to help if you have further questions. Feel free to contact us if you wish to have a training or presentation on how to support someone affected by an illness and how to plan a return to work. We work fluently in Finnish and English!
- Project Manager Emma Andersson, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Work Life coordinators: Marketta Liljeström (email@example.com) and Mari Bergman (firstname.lastname@example.org)