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. Here we discuss how survivors of cancer can be supported to return to work through coaching.

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 2018 found that 1 in 5 (20%) of people with cancer had experienced discrimination at work.

The pressures of returning to work

We are a group of executive coaches supporting survivors of cancer who wish to return to work.  We often find they are not equipped with the resources to counteract the pressures of returning.  Many people with cancer seem happy and smiley.  However inside they can be suffering badly with a long term cancer diagnosis.  Society currently does not seem to be able to process this contradiction.

My daughter, Petra Tiziani a  breast cancer patient who blogged about being 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 you off your fragile ‘just trying to get back to some sort of normal at work routine’ guard. It’s them and you, not we are a team’ anymore. Maybe, it is a hmmm I wonder how she’ll cope now sort of a glance, not a “she’s one of the best, a real lynchpin, we definitely need her on the project” anymore.

You’re different and they know it

When 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.  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? How does it feel 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. When all the while 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?”

Preventing discrimination

So how can you prevent discrimination against survivors of cancer willing to work? In my opinion, employers must be proactive. They must engage with each individual on a case to case basis. No two people will present the same. They will not 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 it 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.

One to one professional coaching support is crucial for employers to support survivors of cancer back to work.   In addition, companies can prepare employees to return to work after a long term illness in the following way.

1. Support the individual

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 priorities have changed

Understand that priorities may have changed and encourage employees to work in a way that takes account of their energy levels & physical capability.

3. Listen

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. Discuss options

Consider and discuss what options you have to amend or change their role to suit their current abilities.

5. Formulate a strategy

Formulate a joint strategy to expand this over a recommended and appropriate level of time.

6. Be aware

Be aware that there may be different values and visions for both employee and employer.

7. Manage periods of absence

Consider how to retain the role for the individual on sick leave while they’re off, phasing in on return if requested

8. Keep in touch

Keep in touch.  When the employee returns, inform them of what else may have changed. This could be company ethos/roles/teams and then discuss openly how this affects the employee directly, involving other team members who may be affected.

Living with uncertainty

All those concerned needs to learn how to live with uncertainty. After a serious illness, it is hard to understand that individuals do not have as much control of their bodies 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

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.

Experienced Professional ICF Executive Coach & CSA Dip Supervisor
Specialising in Cross-Cultural Understanding, Advanced Communication and Working with International teams
‘Coaching Skills for Leaders’ and ‘Coaching Supervision at its BEST’ Both ILM validated

Full Spectrum Supervision – Edna Murdoch & Jackie Arnold 2013

AWARDS: Executive Coaching
ECI & Exelerate