Coping with cancer – the essential role of an employer

Catherine Branfoot, Senior Consultant, Benefex

I am 26 years old and I’ve just been informed that I have stage 2 breast cancer. The first phone call I make is to my employer. 

When I went to the hospital to receive my results, I was so confident that the lump I had found would turn out to be nothing, that I went on my own. It was only going to be a cyst or soft tissue that I likely wouldn’t care enough about to bother having removed. I finished a full day’s work and left my partner at home, telling him that his coming would just be a waste of his time and that I’d be back in an hour. Only this time, it wasn’t nothing.

Breaking the news to my employer
At the time of calling the office I was on autopilot, but I’ve given it a lot of thought since then. Why, after hearing something so life-altering and so devastating, would my first phone call be to my employer?

I think a part of me simply wanted to get it out of the way, a quick win, a box ticked. Sooner or later I would have to let my team know that I wouldn’t be around for a while. I’d have to explain to my boss that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on any imminent projects and would need to discuss coordinating interim resource with my HR team.

Most of us spend 5 days a week, 254 days of the year or a total of 90,000 hours of our lifetime working. That’s a third of our lives spent at work. So, in my time of crisis, whilst I called my parents, siblings and my best friend, I also turned to those with whom I spent so much of my time for support – that was my key need. Something life changing was happening to me and I was desperate to be supported.

The practical side of employee experience
My employer could not give me a literal shoulder to cry on; could not drive me to and from my appointments or keep me entertained as I recovered at home – that kind of support was given to me by family and friends (…and they were exceptional). But my employer had the ability to provide a different level of support, whether it was financial, physical or mental. They gave me tools (on- and offline), additional services, employee benefits, and most importantly, they gave me a whole group of other people. This was a community of individuals with a variety of experience, training and advice. Not only was I desperate for this, but it was essential for the sake of my well-being.

Life-saving employee benefits
Given the unlucky series of events that I have lived through over the last few years, my friends often ask what they missed in the latest episode of the series that is ‘my life’. Luck had not seemed in my favor when I received my cancer diagnosis, particularly given that I’d received the news only a week after completing on the purchase of my first home. I was 26, I’d just made the biggest financial commitment of my life and I was faced with having to lose it all and spiral into debt if I could not work.

Put it down to intuition or a sixth sense, but I’d voluntarily taken out a Critical Illness policy through my employer’s benefit scheme around a year before my diagnosis. It’s unrealistic to expect many 26-year-old to review the market and find out what Critical Illness is, let alone complete the leg work to find the best terms and the cheapest rate. But the only effort required of me was a click of a button in order to select it, and I had a product pre-vetted, brokered and presented before me. Without this, I would not have been covered. Maybe luck was finally throwing me a bone, but really it was just made easy for me to protect myself, and I am endlessly grateful to have had access to this and a range of other benefits.

The importance of employee-employer connection
There’s a well-known phrase about how true friends prove themselves to be so during a time of crisis; that friends you have for life are those that have been there for you during the hard times and the bad. The same is true of the relationship with your employer. Had I not been treated as well as I had – with patience, kindness, and support – would I continue working for them? Of course not.

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The formal employer/employee relationship no longer works in our society. Employees (in the most part) are not looking to log on at 8am, log off at 5pm, get paid and have no other levels of engagement with the business or their colleagues. It’s in our nature to want to develop and have meaningful relationships with people, and therefore it’s instinctive to want to do so in a company we could see ourselves being part of for up to a third of our lives. To bridge the employer/employee gap, however, requires trust and empathy and this can only be done through positive experiences at work. The employee experience has – for a long time – had benefits and well-being at its core, but it’s only recently that employers are starting to realize the continued important part they play throughout the employee’s journey with them.

It’s been over two years since my diagnosis, and I’m fortunate enough to say that I’m cancer-free. I’m also very fortunate that I can say I trust my employer and I feel secure that I would always be supported. At the end of every benefits scheme and employee well-being support, there is a human being. For that reason, it is so important that every decision made is done so with the impact on each individual in mind; from what benefits are made available, to additional support offered, or simply the type of team you make available to care for those that find themselves, as I did, desperate for that additional level of support.