7 mins. read

How to talk to an employee with cancer

How to talk to an employee who has cancer Perci Health

Key takeaways

  • Remember, everyone is different: Everyone has different communication needs and styles – keep this in mind when considering how to talk to an employee who has cancer.
  • Listening is as important as speaking: When in conversation with an employee, allow them time to talk without interruption and show that you’re listening 
  • Keep communication open: Aim to check in with your employee regularly  and share matter-of-fact details in a warm, understanding way.

Finding out an employee has been diagnosed with cancer can come as a shock. You’ll probably have concerns about their wellbeing and want to do what you can to support them. It’s also likely that you’ll be conscious of meeting their needs and protecting their rights, while considering the impact of their diagnosis on the business.

As their employer, there will be occasions where more formal conversations about their diagnosis are necessary and there will also be times when talking about it happens more organically. This guide provides some advice on how to talk to an employee who has cancer, including how to approach conversations in different situations while showing empathy, remaining professional and abiding by the law.

Approach conversations on an individual basis

While it can certainly help to have workplace and management guidelines in place about how to talk to an employee with cancer, you shouldn’t use them rigidly. Instead, Use them as a guide but approach each conversation with your employee individually.

Everyone communicates differently and what one employee finds supportive, another might find intrusive. And while one individual might be happy to talk about their diagnosis and how they feel, another may prefer to keep things private, and even feel embarrassed about the physical aspects of their cancer.

You’ll also need to be mindful of any cultural, religious and language differences. If you know an employee well, you might already have a good idea of how to talk to them about their diagnosis. However, if you don’t have a close relationship, they are a relatively new employee or you are simply unsure, it’s okay to ask them if and how they want to communicate about their diagnosis moving forward, during your first conversation with them.

Choose an appropriate setting

If you need to discuss matters about the workplace or your employee’s role in relation to their cancer, choose a private place to talk with them and ensure there’ll be no interruptions.

In situations where the employee starts a conversation, gauge whether you need to pause and change environments. If the topic turns personal, ask them if they’d like to discuss it further somewhere they won’t be overheard, or arrange another time to talk confidentially.

Engage in everyday chat

Remember that your employee is still the same person they were before their diagnosis. Yes, they are dealing with something difficult, and this will undoubtedly have an impact on them, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have everyday conversations with them.

For example, if you’ve always had a discussion with them about the weekend football results, carry on doing this. Or if you regularly ask one another about how your families are doing, this doesn’t have to change. Just be conscious of using humour and look for cues from your employee. If they initiate a joke, it’s okay to respond but you should never instigate jokes about their diagnosis.

Check in occasionally

Checking in with your employee is a valuable way to ensure mutual understanding. It gives them an opportunity to provide updates about their treatment and for you to discuss anything related to workplace changes, reasonable adjustments or company policies.

When an employee is off sick with cancer, checking in is particularly important as it helps maintain their connection to their work and colleagues, and ensures they still feel like a valuable member of the team.

Try not to leave it too long between check-ins; you don’t want to risk your employee feeling like you aren’t being supportive. But similarly, don’t check in too often as this could feel intrusive or pressurised.

Avoid clichés

Knowing what to say to someone with cancer isn’t always easy. And although you might want to be supportive and lift your employee’s spirits, try not to use generic phrases such as, ‘Keep your chin up’ or, ‘Everything will be alright’.Comments like this can invalidate their emotions and make them feel under pressure to appear upbeat. 

It’s perfectly fine to tell your employee that you don’t know what to say. If they are talking to you about how they are feeling, make sure they know you’re listening. And rather than offering unsolicited advice, respond sincerely with comments like, ‘I can imagine that’s really difficult’ and ‘Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help’.

Balance professionalism and warmth

There will be times when you need to discuss practical matters with your employee, such as the time off they require for hospital appointments or hiring temporary cover for their role. These conversations will have implications for the business, so should be kept professional, however, they may provoke a range of emotions in your employee, so even when being matter-of-fact, try to demonstrate warmth and understanding of their situation.

Provide information and signpost to additional support

There are employment laws that protect employees with cancer from discrimination and require employers to make reasonable adjustments. You should provide your employee with details of any legislation that applies to them and give them copies of any company policies related to cancer, sick leave and long-term illness. You should also discuss what your employee needs from you and any changes you can make to support them.

Signpost your employee to additional help available to them. For instance, if you have an Employee Assistance Programme, make sure they know how to access the services. Also, put them in touch with any cancer-specific support your business has links with,  including support groups, local charities or private healthcare.

What to say to an employee with cancer

In summary, what to say to an employee with cancer depends on the individual so letting the employee guide conversations can help. It’s okay to ask questions, however, you must respect your employee’s boundaries and consider any cultural, religious and language differences.

Check in with your employee from time to time to find out how they are and if there’s anything you can do to support them but avoid being overbearing. Adopt a professional but warm approach to conversations about work; they are necessary but can provoke emotions in your employee that they might find difficult to process. Demonstrating understanding and sensitivity can make talking about practical matters a little easier.

Refrain from using overly positive, clichéd phrases such as ‘you’ll be fine’. They may be well-meaning but aren’t usually helpful. Instead, let your employee know you are thinking about them with sincere sentiments such as ‘I’m sorry you are going through this’. Signposting employees to additional resources and services is also invaluable. Cancer-specific organisations will have staff or volunteers with experience in talking to people with cancer and be able to offer your employee tailored advice and support.

If you’re an employer looking for further ways you can support employees with cancer, Perci Health is here to help. We offer an innovative virtual care clinic that connects anyone affected by cancer with specialist multidisciplinary cancer support.