How to have a conversation with someone returning to work after cancer
This is the second Cancer in the Workplace blog series. And we’ve invited Barbara Babcock to lift the lid on her hints and tips for line managers. Read on to discover how to have a meaningful conversation with someone returning to work after cancer. And to save yourself some embarrassment in the process.
When an employee is returning to work after cancer, saying the wrong thing is what line managers fear most.
You don’t want to ‘put your foot in it’. Or upset someone who’s already been through a difficult time. And embarrass yourself in the process. But you wonder, ‘What should I say?’ In this post and part 2, I’ll give you hints, tips and guidelines to help you. So you can prepare for a conversation with someone who’s been through a difficult time. And reduce the chances of ‘putting your foot in it’.
1. Stop focusing on yourself
When we’re worrying about ‘putting our foot in it’, our attention is on ourselves. And the nature of this attention is anxiety. We can end up having conversations from that place. Which isn’t exactly helpful for getting a good outcome. Only you can change that. Here’s how you can get out of your own way from the very start. And to prepare to support an employee returning to work after cancer.
Trust yourself to do ‘a good enough’ job.
Prepare for conversations.
What outcome would you like for the person returning to work? And for you? Your line manager? For the team? And the organisation? How much do you know already about this situation? What don’t you know? What questions do you have? Who can answer these questions – HR, Occupational Health, the employee, your line manager? What do you need from the employee to help them make their return to work happen and for it to go well? Do you know what does the employee want for themselves? Are you aware of their hopes and concerns? What support do they need/want from you? Make sure to ask the employee these questions.
Read information about the cancer your employee has/had to get a sense of their experience.
This does two things, both which can build a lot of goodwill towards you and the company. It shows you care and that the employee matters. I’ve heard many people express appreciation for a line manager’s willingness to learn about their cancer. And it will help you to empathise with your employee. Empathy is a cornerstone of building and keeping trust in relationships.
You don’t have to do this by yourself.
Consult your line manager, HR colleagues and an Occupational Health advisor if you have access to one. Let them know your plans and ask for their thoughts.
2. Don’t assume recovery means your employee is cured of their cancer
In our society, recovery often means that the person goes back to being the way they were before.
Recovery is also assumed to mean the person gradually gets better and better. In the context of cancer, ‘recovery’ is a gradual process that can often contain setbacks. People who’ve survived cancer often have ongoing symptoms to manage after treatment. These may include ‘chemo brain’, fatigue, pain and continence issues. This can impact what your employee can do. Where they can do it. How they do their job. And even to what extent they can take part in work-related social activities.
The impact of cancer can mean that the person’s body has changed forever. The process of adjusting, learning what you are now capable of doing, and what you are not, can take time. These people may not feel as if they have ‘recovered’ in the traditional sense of that word.
The treatment your employee had may mean the cancer has cleared from their body, but it could come back.
They may be living with the ongoing uncertainty of whether the cancer will return. This is often felt as fear. People in this situation may not think of themselves as having been ‘cured’ by their treatment. However, each person defines ‘recovery’ and ‘cure’ differently. Your employee may feel that they have ‘recovered’ and been cured from cancer. Others will not. Some people may not experience many setbacks at all in their recovery. Every person who has experienced cancer will be different.
Check your own definitions and assumptions of recovery and cure in the context of cancer.
This can help you adjust your expectations of your employee and their capabilities. What you don’t want is to act on how you think the employee should work. Without ever having checked your assumptions with the employee. Doing this can lead to misunderstanding, distrust. And a downward spiral in the relationship.
3. Seek first to understand
This saying is a great reminder to do that: You’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.
4. And don’t forget to focus on yourself
I started this post by saying don’t focus on yourself. Now I’m telling you to focus on yourself. I’ll explain.
Over to you
What has been the hardest thing for you when supporting an employee returning to work after cancer? Or returning to work if you are that employee? If you have any examples of what not to say and do when helping an employee transition back into work after cancer, scroll down and share them here. Just remember confidentiality and make sure examples do not name companies or people.
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About Barbara Babcock
Barbara Babcock supports people living with life-changing health issues to rebuild and renew their lives through coaching and workshops. As an accredited coach, facilitator, adult learning specialist and researcher, her work enables individuals and their families deal with the emotional impact of a serious health issue, navigate the many changes, create their ‘new normality’, and reclaim meaning and purpose in their lives. She also works with charities and support groups, and offers support to organizations to help their employees successfully return to work after a serious health issue. Barbara lives in London and when not coaching you can find her kayaking on the Thames or cooking.