More than 100,000 people of working age (18-64) are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. More people are living with and willing to work with cancer – some to get back to their ‘normal life’ but often for financial reasons.
An employee willing to work with cancer automatically triggers special rights and obligations under the Equality Act 2010. However, a report by Macmillan Cancer Support in May 2013 found that those with cancer who felt they had experienced discrimination at work had risen to 37%, from 23% in 2010. www.macmillan.org.uk
As executive coaches supporting individuals willing to work with cancer, we often find they are not equipped with the resources to counteract the pressures of returning to work. We question whether society allows for people who on the outside are smiling and happy but who in reality are suffering from a long term illness such as cancer.
My daughter, Petra Tiziani www.monmum.com a recent breast cancer patient who blogs about willing to work with cancer (and sometimes not!), writes:
“And what happens when we take ‘it’ back to work? Of course it’s all sympathetic smiles and sorrowful looks, met with the good old positive (thank god it’s not me) distractions, a scuffling of fuss but more or less, it’s business as usual. Maybe that seems harsh and of course not everyone’s included, but a handful of takers and it’s enough to knock your off your fragile ‘just trying to get back to some sort of normal at work routine’ guard. It’s a them and you, not a we are a team’ anymore. It’s a, hmmm I wonder how she’ll cope now sort of a glance, not a “she’s one of the best, a real lynch pin, we definitely need her on the project” anymore.
It’s your confidence you see, it’s got a slight problem. Not even a huge one, I mean you’re willing to work with cancer aren’t you? But you’re different, they know it and you know it and it’s about feeling comfortable in your new skin, literally and about finding a new kind of you. It’s about seeing how that ‘new you’ fits back into the old mould. How does it actually feel to find your old self again, when the new self is different, tired, hopeful, enthusiastic, and surprisingly intolerant.
So how on earth do these worlds come back together? How do you go from losing your hair, despite gruelling cold pack treatment to getting back to sitting, striving, positively, upright across a boardroom? Trying to focus on the tasks ahead, all the while giving off a certainty, knowing that you can even outdo what’s being asked and expected of you? And why does it have to be from being given the all clear, to immediately back to being 100%? From zero to hero in less than 30 seconds?
If you are willing to work with cancer then why not at least 30 days as a minimum to help you re-evaluate your role, your position and your career? To discuss how you and your company can work best together and even to question whether you change your career path altogether?”
So how can you prevent discrimination arising against cancer patients who are willing to work with cancer? In my opinion employers must be proactive and engage with each individual on a case to case basis. No two people will present the same or have the same energy, motivation and requirements.
It is not commonly known that Cancer is deemed a disability under the Equality Act. Employees have automatic protection from discrimination from day one of their diagnosis. This protection continues even if their cancer is in remission. No qualifying ¬period of employment is required. Importantly is the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage at work to prevent or minimise this.
As the result of conversations with members of the Cancer Coaching Community (see below) I include some of the areas we feel need to be addressed:
So in addition to one to one professional coaching support what else can companies do to prepare for employees returning to work after long term illness or serious injury?
1. Support the individual willing to work with cancer to return to work gradually and understand that fatigue and feelings of vulnerability will be inevitable, a medical report would increase understanding.
2. Understand that priorities may have changed and encourage employees to work in a way that takes account of their energy levels & physical capability
3. Continue to listen and collaborate with employees in a way that is beneficial to all stakeholders by introducing a three-way coaching style contract involving both HR and the Line manager.
4. Consider and discuss what options you have to amend or change their role to suit their current abilities
5. Formulate a joint strategy to expand this over a recommended and appropriate level of time.
6. Be aware that there may be different values and vision for both employee and employer.
7. Consider how to retain the role for the individual on sick leave while they’re off, phasing in on return if requested
8. When the employee returns, inform them of what else may have changed eg/ company ethos / roles / teams and then discuss openly how this affects the employee directly, involving other team members who may be affected.
All those concerned need to learn how to live with uncertainty. After serious illness it is hard to understand that individuals do not have as much control of their body as they used to. They ‘look’ well, laugh and joke with colleagues so how can they be ‘ill’ and feel out of control?
Often employees willing to work with cancer need to develop a different relationship with uncertainty so they are able to cope and are calmer within themselves. This takes time and patience and often one small step forward at a time.
Wellness coaching has a person-centred approach where clients are encouraged to determine their goals, use self-discovery and active learning processes to work towards their goals. Coaching techniques skills and methods are sensitively used to assist clients to develop intrinsic motivation and obtain skills to create sustainable change for improved lifestyle and wellbeing.
Jackie Arnold www.coach4executives.com ICF Coach and CSA Dip Coach Supervisor
Author of ‘Coaching Skills for Leaders in the Workplace’ – New Edition Aug 2016 Robinson
Founder of The Cancer Coaching Community CCC set up by 10 ICF Professional coaches all of whom have had first-hand experience of cancer. Launching in Spring 2017.
Our vision is to be the UK professional body that champions coaching for people affected by cancer. For further information and resources go to: