International HR: how to support employees working with cancer?

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The World Health Organisation estimates there were 18.1 million cancer diagnoses globally in 2018. Early detection and improved treatment options mean survival rates in the western world are increasing.

By Allianz Care | February 14, 2019

Allianz Care - cancer in the workplace

As an International Human Resource Manager, there is a chance an employee on expat assignment may be diagnosed with cancer. As a member of the HR team, this may be a personal and professional challenge for both you and the employee in question. However, working with cancer is becoming increasingly common. For many people, remaining at work while undergoing cancer treatment is an important part of their overall wellbeing. It enables them to feel normal and in control during a difficult time in their life.

As a HR manager, there are several ways you can support an employee who has been given a cancer diagnosis while maintaining the needs of your business.

Early conversations

A cancer diagnosis is an upsetting and frightening situation for most people. These feelings may be exacerbated by the stage of cancer, treatment and prognosis for recovery.

Once close family have been informed, HR may be among the first people someone with a recent diagnosis speaks to. It can be difficult to know how to react when you hear news like this in a professional capacity. There are some things you can do to support your colleague during this difficult time in their life:

  • Go somewhere private to talk
  • Let your colleague lead the conversation
  • Allow your colleague to control disclosure to others
  • Inform them of any financial and emotional support that may be available to them

Everyone’s reaction to a diagnosis like this is different. Allowing your employee to decide how others are told about their illness is likely to provide a feeling of control at a challenging time. 

Cancer and employment rights

Employment rights for employees diagnosed with cancer vary from country to country. Have local team members provide information on the laws in countries you have an office in.

Working during cancer treatment

An employee’s ability to work during treatment will depend on their diagnosis. For some people, continuing to work when they have cancer provides a sense of normality during a difficult time. There are things you can do to make working during treatment easier:

Facilitate working from home: try to make an exception for someone undergoing treatment even if it isn’t the norm in your organisation.  The viruses and bacteria while commuting to and from the office and those present in the actual office environment itself, pose an additional threat to people with weakened immune systems from cancer treatment.

Flexible working: there may be times when your colleague is unable to work due to treatment and it’s aftereffects. When they are feeling better they may wish to work reduced hours.

Financial support: ensure your employee is fully aware of company policy on sick leave and any other supports they may be entitled to while they are ill.

Emotional support: inform your employee of any support they may be entitled to through an expat assistance programme. Professional counselling is invaluable for many people going through cancer treatment.

Contact with home: an expat working with cancer faces even more challenges than the average person as they are usually away from the support of family and friends. Do as much as possible to make staying in touch with the most important people easier. That might mean taking time out from the working day for a Skype call or additional trip home. It will help during a difficult time.

Develop a work plan: although it isn’t something most people want to think about when they receive a diagnosis of cancer, providing them with a realistic work plan can be a powerful form of support as it removes that concern from them. Work with their manager to put a plan in place so their work load is evenly distributed. It is a good idea to scope for unexpected absence as cancer treatment can be unpredictable.

Phased return to work after cancer

If an employee has been off work while having treatment, there are things you can do to make the transition easier including:

Return to work plan: this should involve the employee’s manager, team members and HR creating a written plan that clarifies expectations all around on the employees return to work.

Speak to colleagues: in advance of the persons return, speak to their colleagues about how the employee wishes to be treated on their return. This will vary from person to person. Some may wish to discuss what they have been through while others may want to keep it as private as possible.

Facilitate a gradual return: if possible, allow the employee to return to work on a phased basis working up to a full return.

Improvements in detection and treatments mean a cancer diagnosis may no longer mean a long period away from work. With some adjustments and the support of HR, your expat employees may be able to continue their assignment through treatment.

Ensure your employees have access to the treatment they need with comprehensive international health insurance. If you have any questions on cover, please get in touch.