What Do You Do if One of Your Employees is Diagnosed With A Terminal Illness?

What Do You Do if One of Your Employees is Diagnosed With A Terminal Illness?

“As a modern employer, you have to treat people well.” — James Dyson

Employers have a responsibility to manage a plethora of issues related to employees, like leave policies, the employees’ provident fund, medical reimbursements, etc. However, there are situations that prove to be a trying challenge for the HR. One of them is dealing with an employee who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness!

Given the worrying rise in the number of cancer cases diagnosed throughout the world and the trend of hiring older employees, it may seem obvious to have a policy in place for probable cases within the organisation.

Being unprepared can have serious ramifications, not just in terms of managing the concerned employee, but also making sure that his/her long-term absence doesn’t create hurdles in the flow of work.

Before we explore the various ways in which an employer can be better prepared to handle such cases, it is important to be sensitive to the manner in which such an employee is treated.

What A Terminally Ill Employee Doesn't Want

How An Employee Would Not Like To Treated!

There are certain forms of behaviour which will not bode well with an employee who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This includes:

  • Direct discrimination (or doing something because of the condition).
  • Indirect discrimination (owing to policies that prove detrimental to the employee with the condition).
  • Discrimination owing to the disability caused by the condition.
  • Failure to make the necessary adjustments to the role or the workplace environment to lessen the impact of the condition.
  • Harassment (unwanted behaviour related to the condition).
  • Victimisation (owing to complaints registered by the employee about the aforementioned discrimination.

It is an extremely delicate situation for the HR since the condition itself might make the employee unable to adjust, even if the necessary changes are made. Termination of employment could result in the loss of certain benefits.

Here’s what the plan of action of the employer and the HR should be, to be prepared for the eventuality of a terminally ill employee!

One Of Your Employees is Diagnosed With a Terminal Illness… What Do You Do?

The situation of the employer with an employee recently diagnosed with any terminal illness can be a little complex. There might be certain changes with respect to the employment contract or specific benefits that may accrue to the employee.

Therefore, it is important for the employer as well as the HR to be abreast of the following, and if not in place already, should be done on an immediate basis!

1. Documentation:

Policies and training covering key areas such as actions on diagnosis, working during treatment, time-off during treatment; after treatment, disability due to the illness, giving up work and potential unfair treatment.

  • All documentation should be compliant with the laws and drafted in a way that protects the business.
  • Sickness policies should clearly state the way forward in such a situation, explaining various options available for both employer and employee.
  • Benefits team should be well-versed with the options available for the employee, such as early ill-health retirement and access to any support services, such as an employee assistance program or occupational health services.
  • Line managers should be trained and appraised with all the above, to deal with the issue in a sensitive yet transparent manner.

Once the above is in place, here are some possible steps for approaching an employee diagnosed with a terminal illness:

Strategies For Terminally Ill Employees

2. Respond Swiftly:

While you cannot respond hastily to the news of an employee just diagnosed with a terminal illness, you definitely should respond swiftly and get the services of an independent navigator onboard.

A navigator can be a trained health professional who is not an employee of the company and can guide and help the employee in an autonomous way. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution, as the experience needed to deal with a particular condition and the magnitude of the illness will differ from person to person. Yet, the three main areas where an employee will need help from you are:

  • Determining which treatment is most appropriate and how it can be provided.
  • Understanding health care, disability, and other employer-provided benefits.
  • Dealing with the emotional impact of the disease.

All of the above can be achieved if the employers formalize the steps to be taken by the managers and HR professionals when an employee is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

A good start would be to have a meeting with the employee, health care professional, the HR and a representative from the employee assistance program. Matters involving the employee’s legal rights and protections, such as paid time off, flexible or part-time hours, job restructuring, telecommuting, leaves of absence, etc. should be discussed.

All of this should be done keeping in mind the mental state of the employee; after all, the news can be overwhelming and could cloud his/her judgment and decision-making abilities!

Ask the employee’s preferences about informing the rest of the colleagues about his or her illness and respect their decision. Appoint a substitute and discuss how work will be handled by him/her if at all the employee needs to take long leaves of absences at a go due to the illness.

3. Customizations:

It is quite impossible for most of us to understand the emotional and physical burdens of a terminal illness. Yet, the employer and the HR need to work together and work on customizable solutions to make life easier for such an employee as much as possible.

This could include facilities such as having a printer at the employee’s desk, so they don’t have to run up the stairs all the time. There should be a point of contact, a person who keeps the employee informed about the goings-on in the organisation, like in the case of maternity leave.

If the rest of the employees are unaware of the illness of an employee, there are fair chances of rebellion and suspicions of biases creeping in. Managers must be coached in such a scenario to make carefully thought-out statements to convince them that no one is receiving special treatment!

4. Reach Out:

Policies For Terminally Ill Employees

In this entire process of going to and fro between legalities, rights, duties, treatments, and occupational issues, the foremost thing that an employee will expect from an employer is empathy.

Reaching out to such an employee in simple ways such as a phone call, a card or a personal message will get the message across that as an employer, you do care. It is like an unstated expectation by ill employees that their organisation will be there for them.

Employers should understand that this person is scared for his or her life and that being in such a situation is beyond important deals that need to be cracked or emails that need to be replied to.

‘The human touch’ is crucial in such situations. Keep procedures as simple as, an ill employee shooting an email to his/her manager asking to be let off from work on particularly bad days. It may not be the norm for all the employees, but for an ill employee, this simple step can mean the world when his/her health is not on his side.

All in all, employers need to remember that we need to bring some compassion back to the workplace.

A terminal illness tests an employee’s mental strength and physical endurance and as an employer, all you can do is support them through their pain, struggle, and hardships!


1 Comment

  1. Key is to have long term disability insurance coverage from an employer or from the private sector. This is not widely available in India and employers in general do not provide it.
    In US/Canada, it is quite common to get short term disability coverage (3-6 months) that pays upto 60% of the employee’s salary until they come back to work.
    Quite a few large employers provide LTD coverage but there are tax implications for the employee.

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