What Should a CEO Do When an Employee Has Cancer?

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Most employers, Directors, CEOs wouldn’t know how to respond to this news. Are there legal requirements? Is there a HR code for a cancer situation? What is the CEO himself is diagnosed? What is the correct reaction? Peter Blencowe, Managing Director at Bluecrest Wellness, explains for CEO Today.

Matt Bencke at Mighty AI has been the latest in a series of high-profile CEOs in the news with respect to his battle with cancer. Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs and Thomas Schwarz at CAPREIT are among those senior business people in recent years who have gone public about their diagnosis and discussed what this means for their business. When it comes to cancer, what actions can businesses take?

Cancer can be far too emotional a situation for everyone to make up a response on the spot. People may need sympathy and understanding in that situation, but they also want a sense of normality, of control and not crisis.

There should be a recognition of the threat from cancer in the 21st century to business continuity and organisational wellbeing in general: one in three of people in the UK will get cancer in their lifetime, one in two for those born after 1960; of the 325,000 people diagnosed with cancer each year, over 100,000 are of working age. Support needs to be for all staff in the organisation, recognising the importance of early diagnosis and helping employees. One way to be proactive is via annual health screenings, and by having worked-out policies. HR need to be having conversations now, preparing policies and templates for conversations for themselves and line managers for each stage of the situation, when a diagnosis is made, and when the employee wants to return to work.

There needs to be transparency. The nature of the typical leader/follower relationship can be a personal one, involving a sense of admiration, even affection, with leaders being seen as senior members of a family. It means that employees will feel excluded and let down if there is secrecy around such a serious issue, both at a personal level for the individual and potentially in terms of the future of the organisation they work for. But the communication always needs to be preceded by a thorough phase of planning and consultation at the senior levels. It’s not about a single, formal process being followed, but about exploring and determining the preferences of the individual with the cancer diagnosis. What do you feel physically and psychologically about the coming months and what will you be capable of doing, and want to do? How do they want any difficult news to be communicated, and what detail should be provided on how the business will be run during any periods of absence? Early diagnosis can, again, be so important. The pressure of a late diagnosis leads to a lack of time for consultation.

Psychological consequences can be just as damaging and restrictive as the physical. Even when a patient is in remission their sense of the world, its stability and security, may have been seriously shaken. It may lead to a loss of self-confidence, a lower threshold of tolerance for dealing with any problems, more exasperation with colleagues. In particular, there can often be a change in values which can be more marked at senior levels. Cancer can make people reflect on what is important in their lives, and it’s possible that working long hours and taking on the burden of driving the organisation forward can seem trivial and meaningless when you’re faced by your own mortality.

The best forms of support provide a balance of normality versus overt help. The challenge is making sure, at the same time, that senior executives (with their culture of independence, of ‘toughness’ in the face of adversity) are also given an option of scaling back their level of responsibility, of taking time to recover. There need to be processes in place for regular and open conversations about the return to work, how it’s going in terms of pace, and this is as helpful for the leader as for any other member of staff.

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