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Cancer in the Workplace: How to Reduce the Stigma

September 29, 2023

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be one of the scariest moments in someone’s life. The data around cancer remains grim: 39.5% of men and women will face a cancer diagnosis within their lifetime. Cancer changes our world instantly, bringing daunting decisions and new fears for our health, future, and families.


Unfortunately, these fears and challenges often add to an unexpected reality: the stigma surrounding cancer in the workplace. Research shows that only 26% are willing to disclose their diagnosis. There’s a fear of being treated differently, not being given appropriate accommodations, or even losing their jobs. This number becomes even higher for employees caring for a family member with cancer.


Community support is crucial for people facing a cancer diagnosis, including in the workplace. So, what can workplaces do to ensure that workers receive the assistance they need to focus on beating their disease?


What is the cancer stigma?

We may not think of cancer as being stigmatized. Still, the reality is that many cancer patients and cancer survivors find themselves facing discriminatory behavior in the workplace. When someone we know is diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, it raises the thought of our mortality. Naturally, this makes us uncomfortable. It also drives misperceptions regarding how a cancer diagnosis might impact a company overall:


  • The employee’s productivity and reliability.
  • The cost and effort needed to provide workplace accommodations.
  • The potential costs and risks of recurrence in the future.


Together, these stigmas can result in ostracization (intentional or unconscious). There’s a refusal or lack of workplace accommodations, limiting career advancement opportunities, discrimination in hiring, and even bullying and harassment.


What can managers do to end cancer stigma?

Front-line managers and HR staff play critical roles when creating a more supportive workplace environment for cancer patients and their caretakers.


Direct managers are often an employee’s first point of contact when disclosing a cancer diagnosis. They can be most effective in helping employees establish a plan to manage their new day-to-day reality in the workplace. If an employee approaches you with news of a cancer diagnosis, listen compassionately and empathetically. Reassure them that you are there to offer workplace support, including any necessary accommodations. Point them toward the information and resources they need to access their employee benefits, including how to request accommodations. If you do not know where to locate this information, make it a priority and report back to the employee. Establish an open-door policy so they feel comfortable providing any updates, future accommodation requests, or other information as needed to ensure you can give them the support they need. Finally, assure them that you will keep their news confidential. It is theirs to share with others in the workplace only if and when they choose.


What can HR professionals do to end cancer stigma?

HR professionals can also help provide employees and managers with information regarding benefits, accommodations, and other workplace support options. They can also help ensure managers have proper training to manage employees with long-term health concerns like cancer. Examples include creating a clear written policy regarding long-term health conditions, including diagnosis, absences due to illness, accommodations, and working during treatment. And because HR staff plays a vital role in hiring and promotions, by prioritizing addressing their own internal biases or stigmas when it comes to cancer in the workplace, they can help ensure that cancer patients and survivors, as well as their caregivers, do not face discrimination. 


Employers can also consider creating internal support groups for employees impacted by cancer. Another consideration is to create campaigns to improve awareness of managing cancer in the workplace. The goal is to help reduce the stigma by encouraging open conversations in safe spaces.


What can colleagues do to end cancer stigma?

It can sometimes be our instinct to pull away from people battling cancer or similar life-altering situations. Sometimes we are unsure of what to say and a diagnosis raises uncomfortable feelings of mortality and fear. While this is natural, the most important thing we can do for a colleague facing a cancer diagnosis is to support them emotionally and practically as much as possible. 


Let your colleagues know you are there to listen when needed; only encourage them to share if they are ready. Sometimes, a conversation about something other than cancer is what they may need! Don’t overwhelm them with stories of others who have faced the same diagnosis, and refrain from commenting on their looks and instead focus on how they are feeling. 


Offer to take on a routine task for them – this could be work-related, like writing a weekly report, or even something outside of work, like picking up a grocery order. Understand that there will be days when they feel worse than others, so let them know you will step in when needed. Offer to work with them and develop a plan for specific projects or clients so that the transition can be seamless and they can worry less about their work and focus on their health. 


There is, unfortunately, no way to make cancer any less scary. But by being thoughtful and proactive, we can all help cancer patients and their families face less stress by reducing workplace stigma.


WORKPLACE SOLUTIONS is a group of dedicated professionals who provide assistance and resources to individuals and families to create a satisfying and meaningful life. We’re counselors, attorneys, financial professionals, and experienced specialists in a wide variety of fields. Because life’s challenges and opportunities show up in a range of different areas, we provide assistance in a number of different ways.

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