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5 Things You Can Do to Support Your Team During a Cancer Crisis

"My father has cancer." Michelle (not her real name) told her boss.

At first, her boss was understanding. 'We'll do whatever we can to support you." But as her father's diagnosis dragged on for over 5 months, and Michelle couldn't keep up with her work as expected, the boss became less supportive, impatient, and suspicious. All the good feelings of support were gone.

The team secretly supported Michelle, giving her a heads up about meetings she was mysteriously no longer invited to or additional information Michelle needed to complete a project her boss had forgotten to provide. They tried to defend her during meetings.

It was a nightmare for everyone.

Michelle quit and took over 11 years of institutional knowledge and relationships with her. Two of the six-team members left three months after Michelle did, citing lousy culture and a toxic work environment. A year later, Michelle's boss was fired, just two years after she started working for the company.

One thing is clear when there is cancer or health crisis, leadership matters.

It is never enough to say, "We will support you," because that support needs to be followed by concrete actions that show that you support.

If the crisis is managed well, your team will flourish. If it is handled poorly, the results can be disastrous for you and your department.

What you do or say and how you behave when an employee has cancer can make or break your team.

Cancer, death, or any crisis on your team offers you an incredible management opportunity. Done well, and you will increase camaraderie and productivity; done poorly, and you could lose your job.

Here are five things you can do to guide your team through a crisis.

1. Say, “Go take care of yourself!”

No matter the crisis, top of mind for your employee will be taking care of themselves or their person affected by cancer and ensuring you, the manager, believe they can handle the situation. This will cause them lots of additional stress.

Giving your employees permission to take care of themselves feels like a no-brainer, something you would assume. But even if your employee knows you care about them, it's important that you give explicit permission to take care of themselves.


Set a time when you will check in with them.

One of the biggest mistakes I see managers make is that they forget how the words "take care of yourself" can be interpreted differently. One employee will interrupt the phrase as permission to take two days off; another will view it as permission to come in an hour late to work every day for two months. Set a date and time you will check in with them.

This leads me to the next important tip.

2. Communicate

Many managers are hesitant to have direct conversations with their employees about what is happening in their lives. But you need to know when and if the employee can work and how long and for what hours. Not having this information is the beginning of an uncomfortable leadership-damaging situation for you and your team. You are running a department; these are things you need to know.

DO NOT leave it up to your employee to communicate with you.

Of course, stay within legal boundaries of what you can ask and what is none of your business. But within those boundaries, there are a plethora of conversations you are allowed to have

Communicate regularly. Your employee's needs and your needs will change, especially if the treatment is long-term.

3. Reward the heck out of teamwork

In times of crisis, it is not unusual for a team to come together to support a team member, and it is not unusual for a team to experience giver's resentment after several months of working hard but not feeling recognized for what they have done.

During a crisis, reward the teamwork. Take the time to thank and recognize the good work they are doing.

Part of acknowledging the team is…

4. Acknowledge it is not business as usual.

There are few things more uncomfortable at work when everyone tries to ignore the elephant in the room. Point and call out the elephant! Your team is waiting for you, and if you don't call it out, they will most likely build resentment towards you and their work!

You are guiding a team of human beings, human doings.

Having a team member with cancer or in crisis means business is anything but usual. And for most, the return to normal is nebulous. Your team and the affected employee will appreciate you calling out the obvious.

This is an excellent opportunity for you to set the tone of support and share what you expect the team to accomplish during this time. You can be compassionate and still have expectations with the understanding that things may change soon.

5. With every change, give people time to settle

The employee with cancer starts working part-time, then needs to go out for a few weeks, but then is cancer-free but not back at work full time. Or the employee dies.

We like routine, but having an employee with cancer on the team can mean routines can change unexpectedly. We all need a moment to adjust when things change, including your team.

This may mean you will change up project plans and responsibilities, making your team feel a bit chaotic and uneasy. You will need to give people time to settle and hold a few extra meetings to go over the changes and answer concerns.

Supporting an employee and your team in crisis is about showing up as best you can on any given day. There will be frustrations, disappointments, and confusion. That is all normal. So is what you will learn from the experience. And there will be lots of learning!

Perfection is not the goal. Leading your team with humility and grace is what matters the most.

You matter.

You matter to your team and your employee with cancer. And you can make have a significant impact on your team's experience with cancer, good or bad. That's up to you.

Click here to learn how I support employees with cancer, their managers, and their teams!

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