CANCER AND THE WORKPLACE
SHOULD YOU TELL?
Deciding whether to tell — and who to tell about your cancer diagnosis— is an intensely personal decision each of us must make for ourselves. Some might consider it essential to disclose their diagnosis because they hold managerial positions or run their own business. Others consider that a reason not to tell; privacy and protection may be of the utmost concern. In either circumstance, your employer, co-workers and/or employees all depend on you not just to be there, but also to be there. They rely on the contributions you have made over time and the energy and passion you bring to the team. Your work is essential to overall productivity.
In some cases, however, the cancer and the treatment can cause side effects, like fatigue, “chemo brain” and discomfort. This may challenge productivity levels, making performing your essential job duties more difficult. Changes in productivity levels, appearance and/or any extended absences may give people reason for concern and may also cause you to consider if any job modifications or adjustments can be made to your work so that you may be a more comfortable, productive and effective employee.
Job modifications are different for everyone depending upon a number of things; your needs, your type of job environment and your job roles. These modifications are sometimes referred to as reasonable accommodations. A reasonable accommodation under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Some types of accommodations may include telecommuting, flexing your days, a different position or technological aids.
Here’s where the law may tip your decision on disclosure. The caveat is, in order to request a reasonable accommodation or medical leave, you must disclose a medical condition.
WHO TO TELL
Your boss? Your coworkers? Human resources? The answer depends on you and your experience in your work environment. First, determine who really needs to know and start by talking to those people who make you feel most comfortable. If you’re completely in doubt, start with HR and let their experience help guide and support you through the “telling” process.
Telling your boss can be uncomfortable, but it can actually protect you in the long run. Studies show that an alarming one-in-four cancer survivors say they were confronted with some type of discriminatory behavior in the workplace. If you find yourself in that position, remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act only protects you if you’ve made your employer aware of your disease. In other words, what your boss doesn’t know could wind up hurting you.
Then again, you might be pleasantly surprised at the reactions you get. As many of us have discovered, our bosses can turn out to be far more than just supervisors. They can be sources of strength, hope and encouragement, far outside the professional realm. Joanne W. found immediate relief and support when she disclosed her news to her immediate supervisor: “My supervisor’s reaction was warm and loving. She gave me a hug and cried with me. Then she told me that she would ‘take care of everything’.”
Management and/or Human Resources
Your boss may not be the only member of management who needs to know — especially if you’re part of the management team. Once you disclose your diagnosis to your boss, he/she has the right to share the information with human resources and any supervisors or managers who will be affected. If you have good relationships with those managers, you might find it in your best interest to tell them yourself.
You should also talk to your Human Resources department. They will have considerable information about your company’s policies and experience with cancer survivors and may have valuable advice on how to tell people and what to expect.
What about your co-workers? Should you tell them? If so, who? It’s impossible to provide guidelines that apply to everyone. The answer lies in your company’s corporate culture as well as in the relationships you share with your co-workers.
Assessing the Corporate Culture
You’re going to need to make an assessment of your company’s corporate culture and how you fit into the scheme of things. Ask yourself the following:
- What is the general attitude of the employees? Are we more like a family or strictly business?
- What are the differences in the types of relationships I have with different employees?
- Who do I consider a good friend, both inside and outside the office?
- Who do I feel I can trust with matters both personal and professional?
- Has there been another instance of someone with cancer, and how was it treated?
- How do people generally react to the news of a co-worker’s illness? With resentment for having to ‘take up the slack’ or by rallying to support their team member?
Analyzing these aspects will help you predict how your news will be received and help you decide who to tell — and how. When we say ‘ trust your instincts,’ it’s not a cop-out for lack of better advice; you know your work environment better than anyone.
When Bigger is Not Always Better
While there are exceptions to the rule, larger corporate environments can often be rather impersonal. You may not even know all the other employees and may take comfort in a certain degree of anonymity. And if you’re in a high-stress, highly competitive position, you might feel very strongly about not letting co-workers know. Remember, that’s your choice too.
If you work for a smaller company — or a tight knit department in a larger one — there may be a more family-like, nurturing atmosphere. You may spend as much time with your co-workers as your family and find it inconceivable to get through this experience without sharing the news. Let the individual relationships you have with the men and women around you dictate who you tell.
HOW TO TELL
You’ve decided whom. You think you know what. Now comes what some of us consider the most difficult part — how do you tell people about your diagnosis?
Prepare for Misconceptions
If you’re apprehensive about telling your co-workers, it’s not unwarranted. Despite all of the advancements and innovations in cancer treatment today, there are still many common misconceptions about what a cancer diagnosis means. It’s important to be aware of these myths before you start spreading the word so you know how to react. The most common are:
- Cancer is an automatic death sentence
- Cancer is contagious
- Cancer means you will have to stop working
- Cancer automatically makes you less productive, less competent or less reliable
First, know that it’s perfectly understandable to be nervous. This isn’t easy information to share with anyone. No matter how close you are with your supervisor or co-workers, there’s simply no sure-fire way to tell how they’ll react. But they will look to you for clues; if you’re open about it, they’re less likely to shy away from the topic.
Prepare yourself for a wide range of responses. Remember that your own reactions to your diagnosis were varied, and if you didn’t know how to react, chances are the people around you won’t know either. Many will need a little time to get used to the idea. Acknowledging possible responses can help make facing those moments easier.
Try making a list of possible reactions — both those you’d like to avoid and those you’d most like to see. Some examples include:
Other tips on how to tell your co-workers:
- If you’re telling just one or two colleagues, create a comfortable, private environment in which to tell them.
- Reveal only as much as you want to in a straightforward manner. People will take their cues from how you present yourself.
- Give them a chance to ask some questions, if you’re comfortable enough. As you know only too well, some people have no experience with cancer and don’t know what you’re facing.
- Explain to your confidants what to expect in terms of future absences, and let them know there may be times when your mood and productivity will be affected. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can rely on them for help. It’s better to let them prepare for handling a few of your duties beforehand than to spring it on them at the last minute.
- Consider letting people know if you expect your appearance to change in terms of hair loss, skin and weight changes. Explain to them that it’s part of the process of getting better — you may even throw in a joke about how you needed a makeover anyway.
- Most importantly, reassure your co-workers that you’re not disappearing on them. You’ll still be in the loop with their assistance and you’re still an integral part of the team.
Ask for What You Need…and What You Want
Both supervisors and co-workers will most likely appreciate your frankness about your cancer in terms of being a team player and preparing them for changes. Taking the plunge and sharing the news, however, doesn’t mean you’ve given up your right to privacy and control.
Even the most well meaning co-workers can seem cumbersome at times, particularly when your energy is taxed. The last thing you want is a parade of colleagues streaming by your desk each day, asking you for updates. You shared what you wanted and you can draw the line. This is sometimes referred to as setting limits or boundaries with people. Give yourself permission to say no in a professional, tactful manner.
Often, people may have certain expectations about how you should be reacting to your cancer. When you don’t follow those expectations, it sometimes feeds their need to offer their own advice, direction and help.. This is why it is so important to communicate to co-workers your changing needs as you move through your cancer experience.
Prepare for Mixed Reactions
You may be surprised at the reactions you get — both good and bad. Situations like this can bring out the worst in people, but they can also bring out the best in people you would never have expected to count on for assistance. You may, in fact, find that telling people is an amazing relief and a tremendous source of support — and none of us can ever get enough of that. Chances are, you’ll be surprised at how people step up to the plate and pitch in to help you out.
WHAT TO TELL
If you want to keep the information you share to a minimum, consider disclosing the following:
- Your exact diagnosis
- An explanation, in layman’s terms, of what your diagnosis means
- Expected course of treatment
- Expected leave of absences or sick days, if any
- The names of your physicians and specialists
Prepare ahead of time, to review the information. Don’t be alarmed if your employer requests documentation of your diagnosis (in fact, it’s wise to provide your boss with written details about your condition beforehand). It’s not a matter of mistrust — it’s a matter of paperwork and protection on the employer’s end. Plus, if they ask, you’re legally required to do so, and if you’re planning to return to the company, cooperation will be remembered.
Your Game Plan
Some recommend strongly that newly diagnosed employees not only come forth with the facts about their cancer, but also come prepared with a plan for handling work: First, tell the supervisor and come up with a game plan, and then go to fellow co-workers. By having a game plan, the employee maintains a certain feeling of control over the situation. Presenting a plan at the same time as you deliver your news reminds colleagues and supervisors alike of your commitment to your job and your company. Not only are you reinforcing your position as a proactive and solutions-oriented member of the team, but you are also saying, underneath it all: Don’t worry. I will be back. I will survive this and my job won’t suffer. The following tips may be helpful in developing your plan:
- Be up front and honest about your diagnosis and what you expect to happen.
- Develop a buddy system where each critical project or responsibility is shared by a fellow employee so that if you’re out ill, someone is there to follow up.
- Try to share your tasks with a few different employees so that you are surrounded by a “support group” and no single employee is overburdened.
If your co-workers and supervisors are friends, you may want to share with them what’s happening and how you feel about it. Once people know how you feel, they may have a better sense of how they should feel. Consider sharing the following:
- Your current mindset
- Your fears
- Your hopes
- Your vulnerabilities
KEEPING OPEN COMMUNICATION
Regular communication will help prevent your co-workers and supervisors from questioning your value and productivity as a staff member. Everyone will need reassurance that you’re still part of the team. A lack of communication can result in confusion and anxiety – or even mistrust and suspicion – whereas clear and constant communication can offer a world of reassurance.
- Communicate with supervisors and co-workers about how you intend to hold up your end of things.
- Initiate regular meetings with supervisors – and colleagues, if appropriate – to review expectations and productivity.
- Inform supervisors and co-workers if there is any change in your condition or treatment that will affect your performance.
- If you need help, ask. It doesn’t convey weakness – it shows you’re invested in ensuring the best outcome for any given project.