Be the Boss Over Cancer

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An important way to provide for a coworker who has to take leave for cancer-related surgery or treatment is by being the “point person,” or liaison, between the coworker and others in the office who may be handling elements of her workload while she’s out.

“When a point person is designated, the person taking leave doesn’t have to communicate frequently with a dozen different people,” says Anne Pasley-Stuart, president and CEO of Pasley-Stuart HR Consultants in Boise, Idaho. “That’s important because it’s essential for the person who’s ill to conserve energy. Energy becomes a precious commodity when someone is recovering from surgery or undergoing treatment for cancer.”

According to Pasley-Stuart, the role of point person is frequently assigned by a supervisor or manager. “It’s not unusual, however, for a member of someone’s department or work team to volunteer for the role,” she notes. “Often, it’s someone who has been touched by the same problem in their own life, who understands the challenges and difficulties their coworker is facing.”

If you have some advance warning before your coworker goes on leave, be sure to ask several questions:

  • What are the critical issues on your plate right now?
  • Where are we in terms of work flow?
  • Who are the “problem” customers or clients?

You need to know who, what and when,” says Pasley-Stuart. “You have to know where too — where the files you’re going to need are kept, so you don’t waste time looking for them. If you need to represent your coworker on certain issues, you need to be thoroughly briefed.”

Lynda Ford, president of the Ford Group, a human resources consulting firm in Lee Center, New York, recommends dividing issues by importance when you first meet with your coworker. “Identify those things that are critical to the organization and urgent, those that are critical to the organization but not so urgent, and those that are neither urgent nor critical,” she advises. “Then devise a plan for addressing questions that come up about these various issues. Decide whether e-mail or voice-mail will be the preferred method of contact. And establish a timetable for returning calls, depending on the urgency of the question.”

“It’s a good idea to exchange home phone numbers as well as office numbers during that initial discussion,” added Pasley-Stuart. “You may be communicating at odd hours because the person you’re assisting may not always feel well enough during regular office hours to respond to your phone call."

During this same discussion, be sure to ask how your colleague wants to have her phone answered while she’s on leave. “Ask what they would like the person answering to tell people,” suggests Ford, who is a 10-year survivor of breast cancer. “If the person has time to call key contacts, they should call and say they’ll be out for a period of time. If they have contact with external clients, they should call and assure them there will be no interruption of service.”

Obviously, if there isn’t enough time to discuss these things with your coworker before she goes on leave, try to approach her as soon as she is feeling well enough to talk about work-related issues.

To minimize the intrusion on your coworker’s convalescence, “make a list each day of things you need to discuss when you call so you can get all your questions answered at once,” urges Ford. “If once a day proves inadequate, try one call in the morning and one in the afternoon.”

Ford, who took four weeks leave following her own breast cancer surgery, also recommends that the point person keep a daily log of calls in a binder. “Divide the binder into key areas of responsibility,” she says. “For example, in my job, I did benefits, training, employee relations, recruiting and safety.”

The Psychological Value

If it seems hard to imagine someone wanting to think about work when they’ve just been handed a cancer diagnosis, Pasley-Stuart offers the following insight:

“Some people may want to sign off completely for the time they’re out on medical leave. However, for many people, me included, staying in contact with coworkers can be comforting. Personally, I was ready to talk to people the day after I was out of surgery. I didn’t want to be isolated.”

Ford says dealing with office-related matters can actually be helpful for those coping with cancer. “Knowing that you still have some compelling things to do and that you’re still needed in the office keeps you going — that can be a very powerful motivator.”

If you’re not sure how much work involvement a coworker with cancer wants to have while on leave, just ask. Ford suggests this approach: “We want to keep you in the loop but we also want you to have time recover. What would you like us to do?” According to Ford, “Ongoing, consistent communication is critical to the success of this arrangement.”

Pasley-Stuart agrees that candid communication is essential. “A high degree of trust needs to exist between the point person and the individual they’re supporting,” she says. “If the person who’s ill isn’t feeling well when the point person calls, he or she needs to feel free enough to say so.”

When It’s Time to Back Off

How should you handle your coworker’s return to work?

“When the person comes back to work, you want to ease them back in,” advises Ford. “Probably, they’ll want to jump right in and demonstrate they can do everything they did previously. Realistically, it may take awhile to get back in the swing of things.”

Ford suggests making a list of things that have changed so you can update your coworker if you had not already done so by email when the changes occurred. She also recommends a debriefing session upon the person’s return. “Discuss what worked and what didn’t,” she counsels. “Do a written summary of the findings. It may prove handy should the manager ever need to support another employee with cancer in the future.”

Consider Your Limits

Finally, before volunteering to be a point person, Pasley-Stuart recommends asking yourself if you’re willing to commit to the job for as long as necessary. “It’s important work helping someone at a catastrophic time in their lives, but don’t take on more than you can handle,” she cautions. “The role you’re assuming may last quite some time — or at least longer than you initially envisioned, and you’ve got to be willing to hang in there.”

One alternative is to arrange for another member of your department or work team to replace you as point person should your coworker’s leave last longer than originally anticipated. “It’s ideal for one person to handle the job, but if that’s not realistic, try to make sure the hand-off to the next point person is seamless,” advises Pasley-Stuart. “That’s where keeping a log of daily activities and a summary of projects and duties can be invaluable. Color coding files, if it wasn’t done before you assumed your role, can also be helpful. You don’t want the person taking over having to reinvent the wheel.”

“The point person should also be aware that the needs of the person with cancer can change over time,” notes Ford. “Systems set up at the beginning of the process may not be adequate by the third or fourth month. For example, someone may not initially need to delegate work to as many people, but as time goes on, more help may be needed.”

That can be true even after your coworker returns to work. Speaking from her own experience, Ford says, “In the beginning, chemotherapy is not as hard on your system. After my first chemotherapy treatment, I felt fine and had the energy to do all my work. In fact, if someone had suggested to me right after I returned to work that I might want to delegate certain duties, I would have been offended. By the fourth month of chemotherapy, however, I was grateful for any help anyone offered. By that time, you start feeling the cumulative effects of the chemo and it gets harder to keep up with the daily workload.”