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How to Support and Manage Employees With Serious Illnesses

December 31, 2020
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After a year when the repercussions of disease and illness have played out on a global scale, many firms are taking a look at how they’re supporting employees facing health challenges. But while COVID may have prompted these conversations, it’s also brought to light a timeless fact: At any given time, any member of a workforce could fall ill, contract a chronic condition, or need treatment for a temporary or permanent medical issue.

This is especially relevant in the workplace because, according to Rebecca V. Nellis, Executive Director of Cancer and Careers, a nonprofit organization providing education, guidance, and resources for cancer patients in the workforce, the majority of workers with health challenges want to continue working.

“A common misconception is that people who have a serious illness do not want to work — the results of a 2019 online survey commissioned by Cancer and Careers and administered by Harris Poll show otherwise,” Nellis said. Cancer and Careers surveyed US cancer patients and survivors who were employed when diagnosed (or who were unemployed but looking for work following their diagnosis), and found a conclusive result: “Seventy-five percent of survey respondents said working through treatment helps or had helped them cope,” Nellis said.

While supporting employees undergoing a serious illness is the compassionate, humane thing to do, experts said that it’s the right thing to do for business as well.

“Recognize that your employees are your most valuable assets,” said Matt Bertram, CEO at digital marketing agency EWR Digital. “Long-term employees have important knowledge and skills. Always consider how expensive it is to recruit and train new employees.”

And there are big-picture benefits to being the kind of company that supports its workforce during hard times, too.

“Knowing how to manage employees through times of difficulty, including illness, will enhance your reputation as a good employer and will ensure you can attract and retain the best talent,” noted Gilad Rom, founder of pet GPS tracker Huan.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all policy to best support employees with health challenges, experts said there are approaches that any business can adapt to their needs. Here’s what they recommend.

1. Listen.

The place to start, experts universally agreed, was to schedule time to sit down with the employee who’s undergoing an illness (either in-person when possible or remotely via video chat or phone) — and listen.

“Don’t generalize, don’t assume — ask,” advised Julie Jansen, executive and career coach with expertise coaching cancer patients and survivors through Cancer and Careers’s programs, and author of books including I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know it’s Not This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work.

Since no one knows better what will help (and what won’t) than the employee themself, “start with talking to the employee about their illness [and] listen to their concerns and needs,” Betram said.

And, Jansen cautioned, don’t immediately start with a worst-case-scenario. “People tend to jump to the worst possible conclusions about workloads or capacity,” she said. But according to Jansen, not only is that not helpful for planning purposes, but it’s demoralizing for the employee as well.

“People tell me, ‘All anybody thinks of is my illness — they forget about the professional I am, and my achievements and skills,’” Jansen said. It’s better, she noted, for an employer or supervisor to just ask their employee, “What do you need from me?”

2. Take stock.

After getting a sense of an employee’s needs and wants, the next step is to make sure that both parties know the company’s current policies on paid time off (PTO), unpaid time off (UTO), and any job-sharing options. It’s also a good time to review any short- and long-term disability insurance policies, counseling benefits, or any other services to which the employee might be entitled. And if the employee is covered by an employer-provided health insurance plan, make sure they’re aware of key plan provisions, benefits, and limits.

This is also a good time to review any legal obligations.

“There are laws that can provide a framework of support, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires certain employers — private employers with 15 or more employees or state and local government of any size — to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to allow eligible employees to continue to perform the essential functions of their job,” Nellis said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines reasonable accommodations as “modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position.” This can include changes to the work environment or work schedule, like a later start time on appointment days or not being required to lift or carry heavy objects for work-related tasks, or a change in a company’s policies, such as regular work-from-home days (during times when most employees are expected to be in the office).

Even firms not covered by the ADA can benefit from some of the solutions that other companies have developed in response to it. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlines employer responsibilities toward workers who are both temporarily and permanently medically disabled, with specific information on conditions including diabetes, cancer, and epilepsy, among others. Nellis also recommended the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a program of the US Department of Labor, as a resource on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

“Even if your company isn’t required to provide reasonable accommodations, it may be worthwhile for you to offer modifications that keep a valued employee at work — especially since most cost little to no money,” Nellis noted.

3. Get the team on board.

When it comes to what and how much to communicate about an employee’s health challenges, follow the employee’s lead. Some will want their colleagues to know about their condition, while others will want to keep it almost entirely private. Either should be their prerogative.

“It’s critical to show a sensitivity to the person’s preferences — when, how, and why they want to talk about it,” Jansen said.

But ensuring that managers and their employee are on the same page is a must, said Nellis. “It can be useful to create a written plan for how work will be handled, especially if the employee will be telecommuting, coworking, or using flextime,” she added. Keeping everything documented like this means there are no surprises and nothing falls through the cracks.

Other support and education programs may be available through local organizations or advocacy groups. Cancer and Careers, in conjunction with Anthem Inc., Pfizer, and Disability:IN, created an online toolkit entitled Workplace Transitions for People Touched by Cancer, which is aimed at employers supporting employees facing cancer.

“Given that most managers were never trained to be managers, it is also critical to provide guidance and information to the people in your company [supervising] staff,” Nellis said.

4. Be creative.

When it comes to best practices for managing employees with health challenges, flexibility is key.

The lessons businesses have learned about remote working may be a huge opportunity for workers pursuing treatment or healing, Nellis pointed out. “Widespread remote work has taught all businesses to adapt and has proved that a far greater range of jobs can be done remotely,” she said. “This suggests a clearer path for people with serious medical conditions to request remote work as a modification to help them stay on the job.”

There are other applicable policies that can support seriously ill workers — and, it should be noted, benefit a range of staff, from parents or caregivers to pet owners to employees pursuing hobbies and other interests — that include flexibility in hours and scheduling, guaranteed paid time off, and even PTO banks or programs that allow other employees to “donate” their time-off hours to colleagues.

Laura Handrick, an HR professional at the mental and behavioral health site Choosing Therapy and an HR and business consultant, said a past employer had modified a colleague’s work schedule to better accommodate their chemotherapy schedule, which let them recuperate while preserving their valuable Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time. “In addition to providing FMLA benefits to employees going through serious illness, companies can offer compassion and support,” Handrick said.

5. Stay in touch.

Undergoing a serious illness or medical treatment can be profoundly isolating. Making sure your employees know they are still a valued part of the workplace is crucial.

“Designate someone from the HR department who can check in with the employee and get an update,” recommended Daniel Cooper, Managing Director of digital services consulting firm Lolly Co. Regularly scheduled check-ins can maintain a lifeline without being overwhelming or putting all the onus on the employee for staying connected to the office.

But don’t stop there. “Make sure seriously ill employees stay connected, and make a special effort to include them in meetings. Use video chat if they’re working from home,” Bertram advised. “By reaching out, you show that their contribution is still valued and that you care [about] them.”



Whether an employee makes a complete recovery or continues to manage their condition on an ongoing basis, having a robust support system in place for employees facing serious illnesses benefits not just the employee and their team, but the entire company.

As this year has underscored, everyone’s healthy — until they aren’t. But firms that have prepared to accommodate staff members undergoing treatment have a strategic advantage: They’re doing right by their people and ensuring that valued employees who want to keep contributing and sharing their talents don’t get pushed out. It’s a win all around.

And while there’s no one right way to support employees, experts agreed that there is one guiding principle. “Compassion is the most important thing when dealing with an employee suffering from a serious illness,” Cooper said. ”As you come up with strategies, lead with compassion.”