Elephant in the Room – Part Two

What if I can’t work at all? What if I can’t do my full workload any longer? What if I have to give up work? What if I want to return after a long absence?

To answer all these questions, the most important thing to do is to take control over your work situation….I know, I hear you – you have enough to deal with, taking control over your diagnosis and treatment…the work situation comes a long way down the line!

However, if you take control now when you are diagnosed, it’s much easier in the future when you do go back to work.

I suppose you are wondering how I know this to be true? The privilege of direct experience has led me to the following five points I’d like to share here:

1. Inform your manager as soon as you possibly can

The fact is, managers don’t know how to support employees faced with cancer

This doesn’t mean they don’t want to help and support you. If your manager doesn’t know what’s happening to you, he can’t support you. One way of getting a conversation going is to hand in a detailed doctor’s note. By this I mean stating the full type and stage of cancer, not just “cancer”, for example in my case it was “sigmoid colon cancer”. This opened the doors for a meaningful conversation because:

  • a) I needed surgery (cancer had to come out)
  • b) Recovery from surgery was 10 weeks (even with keyhole surgery this was a big operation)
  • c) I needed 6 months of Chemotherapy (8 cycles of 21 days each)

It was very clear that I would be out of work or at least unable to do a full workload for 12 months.

Speak to your GP when you get your sick note, he will explain the potential time out you will need. This allows you to explain it to your manager.

2. Drive Communication

Yes – YOU have to take ownership of the communication with your manager! If you don’t, they won’t. It is as simple as that. Practically, this means requesting your regular monthly one on one’s to be continued as before.

Ensure you are getting updates about your project, your company and changes in policies. By showing your interest in what’s going on in your workplace you are demonstrating that you care, that you are planning to come back and that you keep gossip at bay.

Remember, someone else will have to do your workload and your colleagues will be worried about you. They will be asking your manager about your wellbeing and your progress. If you drive the communication, you are in control and that makes going back a whole lot easier!

Take notes of these discussions and send them to your manager by email. This is not as a sign of distrust but as a sign of engagement!

3. Tailor your voicemail

Yes, people will ring you. No, you don’t want to or can’t talk when they ring.

That’s not their fault, nor is it yours. It’s driven by the situation. A very practical way of ensuring people get the message is to adjust your voicemail on your phone, reflecting the true situation.

This could sound something like: “Hello! Thank you for calling, I would love to chat to you. Unfortunately I can’t take your call just now and I do have a good reason for that. Please leave your name and number, I will call you back as soon as I can. Thank you.”

This message does a number of things:

It demonstrates that you’d like to chat – and you do, in your own time.

It reminds people that you have got things going on, such as chemotherapy, blood tests and scans – stuff you have got to go through. People know about it and are scared to call in the first place. With this message you assure them that it was ok to call you!

It allows you to call back in your own time. Nobody expects this to be within an hour, but ideally within 24hrs. When I was really poorly I even asked my husband to make a call back. Because I valued the calls from my colleagues and friends!

4. Plan Yyour Return to Work (RTW)

In the UK, the law protects you in the workplace and allows you a phased return to work. By law you are entitled to reasonable adjustments to your workplace and working hours etc. And believe me, your employers is willing to look at options – as long as they know what they are considering!

Be the driver in this conversation. Start it at a very early stage – like when you know your treatment will be finished in a couple of weeks. You can ask for the lowest possible hours to work and increase it gradually. You can ask to work from home and ask for limited or no work related travel as it makes you tired.

Come up with a detailed plan to discuss with your manager in your monthly one to ones. For example, I asked to be off every Friday to schedule all my follow up appointments for Friday’s. Why? Because that’s the day my oncologist practices at my hospital. I also asked for a late start on a Thursday so I could get my blood tests done at 8.30am in the morning.

Ensure you get an occupational health assessment through your employer. This will strengthen you case of a phased return. There are many poorly managed examples of long term absences and return to works, yours doesn’t have to be like that!

5. You are back – and NOTHING is the same anymore

So, after prolonged absence you are back…but life has moved on. You have changed and your colleagues and friends have a different view of life than you have. Perhaps you don’t like your job anymore or you feel overwhelmed.

And now what? The excitement of being back at work and the realisation that what seemed to be a fantasy at diagnosis stage is now real, poses a different challenge. I tried so hard to restore my life back to it’s pre-cancer trajectory, to get my career back on track – but was it?

Even now in remission, it will never be the same. Now you need to figure out what is most important to you. One way of doing this is working with me as your coach! Get in touch

For further information about employee and employer relations when dealing with cancer visit macmillan.org