Supporting employees with cancer

Image of James Tracey

To celebrate Macmillan’s flagship fundraising event, World’s Biggest Coffee Morning on 28 September, James Tracey, Senior Human Resources Manager at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust talks about the importance of supporting employees with cancer.

We all know the statistics. One in two of us will get cancer at some point during our life.

Cancer has played a significant part in my life. All four of my son’s grandparents have suffered from the disease and three of them, including both of my parents, lost their life to it. I work in a hospital which is a regional specialist for the disease and every day I spend time with people doing an incredible job to try and preserve quality of life for those with it.

I should point out that I refuse to use phrases like “battle” or “fight” as it indicates some kind of winner or loser position, meaning those who beat the disease are some modern day St.George, slaying a dragon. Cancer never fights fair.

One of the inevitable parts of my role as a senior human resources manager is to support attendance. However I also refuse to use phrases like “managing attendance” or “setting a target”. This is an indication that we are doing something to an individual rather than supporting an individual to attend work. Attendance is never a one way street.

Part of my duty as a HR professional is to look at the list of employees who are currently off sick or have high levels of absence and ensure that everything is being done to support those individuals including regular support meetings and occupational health appointments. Regardless of the disease, we think about every avenue we can to support the employee either return or to sustain attendance at work.

Cancer is different. Whenever we come across someone with the disease, we tend to back off, allow them to have their treatment and tell us when they hope to come back to work.

I won’t deny that supporting employees with cancer is emotionally difficult. I think I would struggle anyway. I think we would all accept that we need to take a new approach to supporting not just employees with cancer, but employees whose loved ones face the same and need support, advice and guidance to help deal with this terrible situation.  

Thankfully, that has already started.  Within our trust, I spoke to our head of nursing for oncology about using some of the experience from the end of life team (I know – catchy title.  Not one you would want to introduce yourself as in a social situation) to enhance some of the knowledge and experience we have about supporting managers who need to support employees. As a consequence, the Macmillan nurses were invited to speak to our HR advisory service about the disease, its effects and how we can support employees to remain in the workplace whilst their disease is treated, even if that is with a reduced or sporadic engagement. One thing about working in a large acute trust is the number of highly specialist clinicians who are treating many of the diseases which our employees face on a daily basis. Yet we never “cross the divide” and seek their input to guide our attendance support processes.  

My trust is one of the first NHS organisations to sign up to Dying to Work, a trade union congress initiative which supports our employees in having a choice about how their employment is managed during their treatment. I do not ever recall having a situation where an employee with a terminal disease was dismissed against their will but it makes a statement about the support we want employees to benefit from.

The health, safety and wellbeing partnership group produced guidance on prevention and management of sickness absence. The guidance puts the employee at the heart of the process and advises how trusts can work in partnership with employee representatives.

In dealing with attendance issues, we must put the employee at the heart of our decision making.  Supporting attendance is always best managed when we look at all possibilities in partnership, rather than it being a management led practice.

In supporting employees with cancer, we must not simply ignore them and hope they get better. We should engage and discuss what support they need. We should also look to the specialists in our organisations who can support us to understand how best to do this. They do it every day and we can learn so much from them.


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