When someone is diagnosed with a serious health condition, it impacts several important areas of their life, including work. That, in turn, can prompt them to ask themselves questions such as, “How do I balance work and treatment?” “What can I expect from my employer?” “What are my legal rights?” “What do other people do in this situation?” Diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders and cancer are just a few examples of serious illnesses that can beset people in the workplace and drive them to find ways to balance their job and health demands. As a human resources professional, you are on the front lines of helping these employees find a workable solution if they decide they want to stay on the job.
A common misconception is that people who have a serious illness do not want to work. The results of a 2022 online survey commissioned by Cancer and Careers and administered by Harris Poll show otherwise. The research was conducted to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of U.S. cancer patients and survivors who were employed when diagnosed, or unemployed but looking for work following their diagnosis. Seventy-six percent of survey respondents said working through treatment helps or had helped them cope. The survey also found that nearly one in three respondents were hesitant to reach out to their HR team. To ensure employees feel comfortable engaging with HR, it is essential that companies recognize the unique needs their employees have following a diagnosis and that they create mechanisms to assist them. Navigating workplace challenges becomes easier when employees are equipped with the right knowledge, tools and support.
Below are some strategies HR leaders can implement or reinforce to support their employees who want to work through treatment and/or recovery:
Communication Is Key
One of the first steps is to ask about privacy preferences, so you understand the degree to which the employee wants to share information about their illness — if at all. Just because a person discloses to you, doesn’t mean they are comfortable with having the entire staff know the details of the situation. Deciding whom to tell is an intensely personal decision that your employee must make for him/herself. Some may be more open about their health status, while others may want to keep it as private as possible. It can also be useful to create a written plan for how work will be handled, especially if the employee will be telecommuting, coworking or using flex-time.
Understanding the Law
A thorough understanding of the laws that protect employees in the workplace is necessary. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as certain state laws, may be applicable and can create a framework of support. Under the ADA, your company might be required to provide reasonable accommodations to chronically ill individuals to help them continue to perform the essential functions of their job. Sometimes small adjustments such as modifying a work space or schedule can help employees continue to work while going through treatment. In many cases, such accommodations can be simple, low-cost changes — for example, making sure office equipment is within easy reach, reassigning non-essential tasks or offering more breaks in the day. Even if your company isn’t covered by the ADA, being open to workplace modifications that help employees stay on the job can be incredibly useful for all involved. Have a conversation with your employee about what might work and keep the lines of communication open as their treatment and recovery progress, because their needs may evolve over time. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an excellent resource for guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment laws.
Know Company Policies Inside and Out
There is an array of work-related policies that will affect your employee on a day-to-day basis, so you should be able to speak knowledgeably about medical leave, short-term and long-term disability and other benefits — or be able to connect the employee to someone who can. Flexible work policies, paid time off (PTO) and leave banks are also useful resources for employees with serious illnesses, if your company has established them. It might be worth taking stock of your company’s current policies to determine whether additional programs should be implemented.
Managers also need support, as they may have never faced a challenge like this while supervising their team. A useful resource for them is Workplace Transitions for People Touched by Cancer, which provides a free web-based toolkit to help managers support their employees’ productive return to work after a cancer diagnosis, while complementing existing company policies. Though the tool was created with a focus on cancer, much of the content is applicable to other serious illnesses an employee might be facing. The project is a collaboration between Elevance Health, Cancer and Careers, Pfizer Oncology, and Disability:In and is designed to help managers improve employee retention, productivity and morale.
There is no way to plan for all of the variables that may come into play when an employee faces a serious or long-term health issue — however, there are things you can think about, organize, research and communicate ahead of time to provide information, clarity and assistance when approached by your employees.