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02/07 - W. Michael Thomas

     Cancer in the Workplace

Last year, the Canadian Cancer Society predicted an oncoming “cancer crisis” prompted by a cancer rate that is growing twice as fast as the country’s population.  In 2005, that meant almost 150,000 new cancer cases – over 2,800 per week.  Using these projections, by 2035, 5.7 million more Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer.
So what do these numbers mean for employers?  Hospitals may treat the physical aspects of the disease but as a major part of their employees day to day lives, employers are in a unique position to offer both practical support – in the form of benefits and financial aid – and emotional help that spans an employees entire treatment.
Therefore, employers need to take a proactive approach and be prepared before they hear those dreaded words, “I have cancer.” 
Here are some suggestions:

Dealing with a Diagnosis - As a manager or supervisor, be prepared to listen.  This allows you to determine how the employee is handling the diagnoses – are they overwhelmed or practical?
Benefit Programs - Be familiar with company benefits programs such as; Income Replacement, Health Care, Critical Illness and Employee Assistance Programs.  This way you can effectively guide your employee to the resources that take care of their immediate financial and medical needs.
Organize Departmental Support - Co-workers are often anxious to help an ill colleague any way they can – driving them to treatments, running errands or just keeping them company when they are not feeling well.
Working with Illness - Statistics show about 40% of employees opt to keep working throughout their illness.  Managers must balance their obligations to support their sick staff member as well as looking out for the rest of the department.  Some areas to consider are; flexible work hours, modified duties and telecommuting – can they work from home?
Take Charge with Communication & Education - In addition to brochures in the lunch room, some employers have enlisted local cancer support groups to lead an education session.  Employees learned it was okay to talk about cancer and share their concerns and fears.  It taught employees how to talk to someone with cancer and how to help those who have a close friend or family member struggling with the disease.  With lines of communication open, companies found they were better able to deal with the disease’s impact on the workplace.
Back to Work Plan - Plan a gradual return to work schedule, be aware of physical limitations (chronic pain, fatigue), expect some psychological fall out (anxiety about cancer returning, ability to reintegrate and return to work) and depression. 
Awareness campaigns - Educate employees who might not understand risk factors or know when they should get screened. 

The following two websites provide a variety of helpful information: and

W. Michael Thomas is a Partner at The Investment Guild (the Investment Guild is a People Corporation company)

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