6 mins. read

When your boss or manager has cancer

Boss has cancer Perci Health

Key Takeaways

  • Respect their boundaries: Don’t share details about their circumstances with others without checking with them. Be mindful of asking personal questions; if you aren’t sure if they want to talk about their diagnosis, it’s okay to ask them.
  • Things are likely to change: Expect there to be changes at work as your boss or manager navigates their treatment. They may not be in the office as much  and may take leave. You may also find that there are adjustments to the chain of command and/or your responsibilities.
  • Process your feelings: While you may want to focus your energy on supporting your boss, it’s important that you take time to acknowledge your emotions and look after your own wellbeing, too.

For many employees, their boss plays a pivotal role in their working life, so finding out they’ve been diagnosed with cancer can be upsetting and destabilising. It’s completely normal to worry about them and want to help. It’s also normal to be concerned about what their diagnosis means for you and the dynamic at work.

This guide aims to give you an insight into changes that might occur at work, including how you can support your boss and manage your own concerns and wellbeing. 

Receiving the news that your boss has cancer

Depending on your working environment and the relationship you have with your boss, you may find out that they have cancer via a meeting, a company-wide email, or a one-to-one discussion. Regardless of how you are told, you are likely to experience a multitude of emotions.

Many people will feel fear and anxiety for both their boss and themselves. This is perfectly normal. You may feel fear for your boss about their prognosis and how treatment might affect them, and perhaps sad that this has happened to them and about what their diagnosis means for them and their family.

You may also worry about how their diagnosis will impact you and your work. Will the professional  hierarchy change? Might there be an expectation that you take on more duties? And what about your long-term job security?

It might be helpful to make a note of any questions or fears that you have. Even if the circumstances mean you can’t ask for clarity from your boss, there may be a point of contact such as a stand-in manager or HR representative that you can talk to. 

What to expect at work

You may already have experience of supporting a coworker with cancer, or someone having cancer in the workplace may be something you haven’t had to deal with before. Either way,  if your boss has cancer, there will likely be some changes to how things run and the dynamics of your team.

Firstly, your boss or manager may not be as available. They may continue working but take time off for appointments, they may work from home or reduce their hours, or they may step away completely to focus on their health.

Depending on the circumstances, this could mean that someone else in the company takes on their role temporarily, someone new comes in to cover their position or that your boss’ usual responsibilities are spread out and absorbed by several other people.This will likely mean there is a transition period for you and your coworkers whilst a new chain of command is established, tasks are delegated, and people adapt to working with new personnel. You may also be asked to take on more to help support your boss and the business overall. Even if you’re keen to help, it’s okay to ask for clarity around expectations and to discuss your limitations before agreeing to any arrangement.

If your boss continues to work, even in a different capacity, you might notice changes in them or in your relationship with them. ; cancer diagnosis and treatment is incredibly challenging physically, psychologically and socially – your boss will be trying to process their situation and their emotions surrounding it, so it’s important to remain patient and understanding. 

What to say to a boss who has cancer

Knowing what to say to someone with cancer isn’t always straightforward. It depends on many factors, including your relationship with them, their personality, the type of cancer they have and the stage of their cancer, amongst other things.However, anything you do say should be genuine and considerate of their feelings. If you don’t know your boss particularly well or have a close working relationship with them, you might simply want to offer your condolences or let them know you are there if they need anything.

If, however, you have known your boss for a long time, work closely together, and/or have forged a friendship, your approach to talking to them might be a little different. You can ask them how they are feeling and tell them you are there for them if they want to talk. Supporting someone with cancer might even mean offering them help outside of work, if appropriate.

During a conversation, take their lead especially if it’s obvious they don’t want to talk. Avoid making remarks that could be regarded as insensitive, such as about their physical appearance. Also, remember that it’s okay to chat about everyday things and to use humour if that was part of your relationship before their diagnosis.

Coping with changes and your emotions

It’s common to experience strong emotions after finding out your boss or manager has cancer. Sadness, fear, and anxiety are feelings that many will go through initially, but as changes occur at work and your boss undergoes treatment, other emotions may come to the forefront.

If you feel guilty for worrying about your own role, and how your boss’ diagnosis may impact you, you aren’t alone. It’s common to have concerns about work and this doesn’t make you a bad person. There may also be times when you feel angry or resentful about the situation, especially if your boss’ absence or reduced presence has meant that you have been working more hours or additional work has been delegated to you without compensation. These feelings are also valid.

If you are struggling with changes at work, try speaking to someone about this. If your boss is still working and you feel comfortable doing so, have an honest conversation with them. Alternatively, arrange a meeting with someone from your company’s HR department to discuss your concerns.You may also benefit from speaking to a professional  about your emotions. Your employer may be able to put you in touch with a therapist, for example, or you could reach out to a cancer support charity or organisation.If you think you’d benefit from more support in the workplace to navigate a cancer diagnosis, tell your employer about Perci Health. Our cancer specialists are here to help, offering a range of support types in a friendly and professional manner.