Unfortunately, it’s statistically likely that one of your employees will be diagnosed with a long-term illness like cancer, especially if you have numerous workers and stay in business for years. 

The American Cancer Society notes that around 1.9 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed annually. And cancer risks rise with age, especially for those over age 45. Consequently, the longer your team members stay with you and the older they are in general, the greater the chance of a cancer diagnosis. 

Cancer isn’t the only life-threatening illness that could affect your employees, either. Early-onset dementia, COPD, stroke, heart attack, and even diabetes can be devastating as well. Any serious diagnosis could have life-long repercussions on an individual’s emotional, physical, social, and professional experiences. 

You can’t take away the pain, shock, or trauma faced by an employee dealing with overwhelming medical news. However, you’re in a position to provide more support than you might imagine. And your support could ease some of the stress for your worker.  

Unsure about the most proactive steps to take? Try these strategies. They’ll ensure you’re ready to jump into action if one of your employee’s health circumstances changes. 

1. Understand all applicable employment laws. 

You need to tread carefully as an employer when an employee discloses a health emergency. In most situations, you’re required to make reasonable accommodations so your worker can continue doing their job. Need help understanding what accommodations are and why they’re important? The Americans with Disability Act offers quite a bit of information regarding what to do when a worker has cancer. It’s helpful for you to have a legal understanding of what’s expected of you as a supervisor.  

Triage Cancer and Cancer and Careers are excellent sites to improve your education on how to be a more empathetic supervisor. Once you have a better grasp on what you should and can do for your employees, share those findings with all the managers on your team. Anyone who’s a supervisor deserves to know how to act if an employee opens up and asks for accommodations. The last thing you want is a person in leadership responding unethically or illegally. It might even be a good idea to have regular training sessions with leaders on this topic to share updates and review information. 

2. Have a document of resources ready to share. 

A team member who is facing a health crisis may not know where to turn for advice or assistance. You can step into the role of supporter by offering a list of resources that might be useful. Typically, resources will include places to go for social or financial help. After all, treatment can be costly. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of adults have tapped their savings to pay for medical bills. 

With this in mind, think about amassing a list of organizations that provide fiscal relief to people with long-term illnesses. The Pink Fund, for example, can provide three to six months of non-medical financial assistance for those undergoing breast cancer treatment. Recipients of these one-time grants have money paid directly to their creditors to cover housing, transportation, utilities, and insurance.  

Another cancer-related resource for non-medical financial assistance is CancerCare, which has co-payment and financial assistance programs.  

3. Maintain a high level of discretion. 

If an employee talks to you about a recent serious illness, don’t assume that you can share the information. Some employees wish to keep their lives as normal as possible, especially to their colleagues. Typically, they won’t mention a diagnosis unless side effects like hair loss or weight loss make it evident. 

On the other hand, some workers are very open to talking about their situation. Many will post about their treatments and journeys on social media. The best practice is to follow the law as well as your employee’s lead. Never assume that someone is “fine” with you sharing their medical details unless they’ve explicitly given permission for disclosure. 

4. Get ready to explain potential leave options. 

Managing your expectations as well as the expectations of your employee with a life-threatening illness is essential. Some of this conversation should involve talks about any kind of time off the worker is entitled to. For example, let’s say your business employs 50+ workers and therefore has to follow the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In that situation, you should be prepared to explain how FMLA works and how the employee can take advantage of it. 

Even if you’re a company with a smaller staff, you probably offer workers other leave options like paid time off or unpaid leaves of absence. Some employers also provide short-term and long-term employer-covered insurance. Rather than assuming your team member knows about these benefits, have a discussion to clarify them. 

No one asks for or deserves to face a life-threatening illness. If one of your team members is in this position, you have the opportunity to make the experience less daunting. All it takes is some planning and compassion.