Elaine Dutton / LinkedIn

Everyone is aware that October and November are months where philanthropists, non-profit organisations and activists join forces and campaign for cancer awareness. Each year with new themes and goals they manage to reach new audiences. In addition to the hundreds of volunteers that spread the word for a noble cause, in recent years companies followed suit by engaging with their customer base as well as their own employees about the importance of precaution and regular screening.

In Malta, one woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer approximately every day of the year, resulting in around 350 breast-cancer diagnosis per year. Despite most breast cancer treatments in Malta being given for “free”, certain circumstances, such as special medication, still require a paycheck at the end of the month and so many patients still work, when possible.

How can companies offer support for one of their own?

“I would argue that a company should have in place a general employee wellbeing policy, which then would encompass all aspects of employee health be it physical or psychological,” Elaine Dutton affirms to MaltaCEOs.mt.

Dr Dutton, Psychologist, HR Consultant, Trainer, Coach and Founder of The Change Agent, told MaltaCEOs.mt that despite believing that a company should offer basic support policies, “there are practices one can have in place that cater specifically for persons going through complex health issues or treatment.”

Namely, she lists five important practices, the first being flexible work arrangements.

“Flexible work arrangements would be the basic, in my opinion,” Dr Dutton says. She adds that companies should allow employees to adjust their work schedules, use remote work options or explore part-time work during their treatment and recovery periods.

Second in line, Dr Dutton suggests strategic leave options, including leave pooling. “If feasible, companies should offer extended paid or unpaid leave options. I am also aware that some companies have a programme in place where employees can donate a portion of their leave, which is then pooled for employees going through medical interventions or where the employee needs to be absent due to their children going through treatment abroad, for example,” she explains.

Health and wellbeing support ‘should be given to all employees’ irrespective of illnesses

Dr Dutton also refers to health insurance, which to most companies, is a common perk. Nonetheless, she remarks that companies should go a step above and opt for health insurance policies that cover cancer treatments and expenses.

Besides the support needed during the acute phase of an illness, Dr Dutton also believes that companies must develop a structured return-to-work plan that help employees transition back to their roles.

“Needless to say, the extent to which an employer can support a partial re-entry or a change of duties to health, is heavily dependent on the size, resourcing of the organisation and the type or role the employee used to do before becoming ill,” she acknowledges.

Despite this, regardless of the situation Dr Dutton says that a frank, but sensitive conversation has to take place on; what ‘returning to work’ will look like, what is feasible for both parties and the extent of support required vs the support that can feasibly give.

MaltaCEOs.mt also asks about Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and whether it is feasible to be provided also to those dealing with the diagnosis of immediate family members.

“Definitely yes. These services provide emotional and psychological support, which can be invaluable during such challenging times,” she says.

Based on the experience Dr Dutton has had, emotional and psychological support are among the most used benefits and employees find them incredibly supportive. “But this ties back to my argument that such support should be provided for overall health and wellbeing not just people with a cancer diagnosis.”

Should companies have contingency plans in such cases?

Dr Dutton agrees that companies should indeed have contingency plans in case someone is unwell long-term. “Does it happen in the practical, day-to-day reality, where departments are constantly short staffed, project deadlines are tight and where the margin of profit may be so narrow that you can’t feasibly have more than the essential members of a team working on a project or task?” she asks.

Unfortunately, she adds, that when an employee is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition or a long-term health situation, the organisation has to quickly understand the implication and how to address it.

“Where you have large team set-ups, the work is often absorbed by other members or at best some work is re-planned with other departments supporting the team effected. Workload can be re-planned and re-distributed and where feasible a company may re-consider some project timelines,” she remarks.

Dr Dutton also explains that some companies have cross-training strategies in place that “ultimately serve well, not only in case someone falls ill, but also in the event that someone resigns.”

She mentioned that job mobility is quite high in most industries and emphasised the importance of having plans in place for how a department could still achieve its results if members were to leave the organisation. She also noted that such plans could indirectly prove to be useful in cased of ill health.

In addition, she suggested that having options of temporary staff could also be an option. However, this might be difficult for high level roles, where a long period of training is required to fill in the gap of the individual.

‘Support could take the form of sending best wishes while someone is in convalescence’

Despite many ways of supporting an individual, Dr Dutton says that most companies in Malta are small enterprises and so they would not have the resources to shift work around so easily, and may also lack the financial resources to offer high-end health insurance or extensive EAPs.

“However, it costs nothing to be human. Sitting with an employee who has just received bad news, of any kind, being there to listen and showing humanity can mean the world to an individual. Support could take the form of sending best wishes while someone is in convalescence, remaining in touch and genuinely asking about someone’s health to encourage and offer moral support,” Dr Dutton says.

She concluded that offering flexibility and extended unpaid leave, as far as reasonably possible for the organisation, could all be ways how smaller organisations can show their support to a person who is facing health issues.

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