Working during Treatment

Recently I was asked to write about my experience in continuing to work while going through treatment for breast cancer, and my thoughts on ways supervisors may be able to best support employees with short-term or chronic illness.

As I wrote in a previous post, although my direct, administrative manager and co-workers were very supportive throughout my treatment, my direct principal created a harsh work environment for me. This brought undue stress. However, I played my part in allowing it to continue.

Many people have to work through their treatment, and there are laws in place to protect employees from discrimination during short-term or chronic illness. Here are several links that may be helpful when faced with employment issues during a serious illness:

I think the biggest factor is that there is fear on both sides. Fear from the employee over potentially losing their job or losing various aspects of their job, and fear from the employer of diminished job performance from an employee while they are going through treatment (and possibly after treatment).

While it is a personal decision on the part of the employee about how much information, if any, they decide to share with their employer, supervisors and co-workers, I do believe communication is key here. Employees and their direct supervisors should be willing to develop a positive, ongoing rapport about the employee’s work environment, treatment regiment, potential side effects, needed time-off, alternative work accommodations and possible work goals throughout and after treatment.

It may be beneficial for direct supervisors to better inform themselves, in general terms, about the type of illness an employee faces, the types of treatment, side effects and possible complications associated with that illness. Being more informed may help them to better support an employee who is going through treatment.  Keep an open mind and heart.  All businesses have a human element and this is a time to focus on that.

Trust is needed from both sides to bring positive results.  If an employee feels supported, they are more likely to return 110% or more in job performance and productivity during and/or after treatment.  Employees, in turn, need to be forthcoming as to their capabilities and limitations throughout treatment.

I will state, however, that there is a fine line.  I can attest to having divulged too much information at times.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe anything would have helped my particular work situation.   On a number of occasions I spoke with my direct principal to better inform her of my status and efforts to maintain good job performance and a positive work relationship between us only to have her dismiss all of that later.

It can be difficult to continue working through treatment.  Chemotherapy and surgeries, side effects and complications, constant doctor appointments, being poked with needles on a daily basis and all the serious medical decisions can be emotionally, physically and psychologically draining.  It was for me, and working in a harsh environment did not help.  Unfortunately, financially I didn’t have an alternative.  My MedOnc wanted me to take three to five months off for chemo, but this single girl had to pay the bills.  I will say, however, that going to that job every day (aside from treatment and sick days) gave me a sense of purpose and did help me combat some of the side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and depression.

I hope the above information helps someone out there.  Every situation is different and should be handled with care.

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