01/16/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Should Companies Be Concerned About Cancer and Serious Illness in the Workplace?

As a former clinical social worker, one who had a prolific private practice in years past, I know a great deal about the impact of serious illness on an individual, a family and a job. My practice was full of people who needed help in dealing with the emotional concerns that accompanied illness. I saw the patients themselves, and I saw their caretakers. I never, however, saw a person who was a manager or held a significant position of power in a corporation come to my therapy office to discuss the impact of serious illness at work. That's curious.

I now wonder, many years later, if management-level people understand that underneath the patient experiencing a difficult illness is a person -- a "human being" struggling to fit into a world that is no longer simple or straightforward, but rather is a winding, bumpy road going who knows where.

It's imperative that a view of WORK be highlighted as a major portion of someone's life.

In the words of Studs Terkel, from his book Working: "Work is about a search for daily meaning, as well as a daily bread, for recognition as well as cash."

I always say that people work more for a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning than merely for cash. If it were just for cash, they could work anywhere, but yet, they strive to work where they want, doing what they want, at least when they can.

So, I'm on a mission to transform the language of cancer and other serious illness in the workplace. I feel it's a necessary missing piece for many struggling to integrate their lives and yet needing strong support to do so.

Work is important, to everyone... definitely to the employee that wants to keep his/her job... definitely to the employer who knows the cost of replacing and retraining. So then, the question becomes: how do we keep a seriously ill person involved in the work process while at the same time allowing time for flexibility and healing?

The larger piece of this pie is about ENGAGEMENT (a huge buzzword these days). How do you take care of your employees? The premise of that concept is: If you take care of your employees, then they in turn will take care of your customers. That is the bigger truth. If an employee does not feel appreciated, then the customers know it. Period, end of story. It's not rocket science, it's just common sense.

So, let's get into this discussion about engagement, why it's important to be concerned about serious illness in the workplace.

The most straight forward answer to the initial question of why should we be concerned is: Because it's the RIGHT THING to do.

So, what is serious illness?
• It's something that isn't easily healing or going away.
• It generally has a diagnosis and carries serious threat
• It's often chronic and comes back
• It requires treatment and often a great deal of time away from work

If you think you don't have too many people with serious illness, think again.

Cancer -- one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetime; one in two men, according to the American Cancer Society.

Then, if you add other serious illnesses, like multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, auto-immune disorders and heart disease, it's easy to assume that up to 40 - 60 percent of people reporting to work on a daily basis might be impacted (either by their own illness or that of a loved one.) What does that cost your company?

Well, there's absenteeism, cost of disability, worker's comp and lost productivity. Just in the arena of cancer, researchers analyzed national data from 2004 to 2008 and found that more than 3.3 million American workers are diagnosed with cancer each year. This results in more than 33 million disability days per year, translating to $7.5 billion in lost productivity.

What does lost productivity mean? It refers to absenteeism due to illness, or "presenteeism" - a term meaning being present at work physically, but really unable to perform at full potential. Sort of like present but absent at the same time.

Briefly, some of the impact on the workplace beyond absenteeism includes: lower team involvement, use of more flex time and working from home, possible need for physical accommodations (rest areas, wheel chairs, etc.), time off for medical appointments, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, dialysis, etc.

Imagine how noticeable this all is. For the patient there's the discomfort of possible disfigurement or disability, heavy-duty side effects from medications and treatments, post-surgical responses, hair loss, pain, low energy and depression.

For the people in the workplace, there's the profound discomfort of how to deal with, talk with, communicate about the person's illness. Do they ask about it or not? What should they say? Should they go in the other direction when they see their fellow employee to avoid saying the wrong thing?

Furthermore, for the co-workers, there's the terror/ fear they feel as they watch what their ill co-worker is dealing with. They are confronted with the question: what if this happens to me or my family? So, the easiest thing to do is to avoid, deny and run the other way. Their avoidance is NOT because they don't care, but because they are ill-equipped to know what to say or what to do.

What do you think this behavior says to the employee? Perhaps they feel unwelcomed, or like a burden or scared or rejected.

Honestly, they often don't know what to say either. They don't want you to be uncomfortable either, so they shut down and avoid contact as well. And, the dance of communication / or lack there of dances on.

What's really needed are the traits that we refer to as Emotional Intelligence skills. They want/ need empathy, genuineness, understanding, compassion, optimism, generosity of spirit. They want to continue to feel connected to their team, their work. They want to tell you how things are going... but only if you ask because they don't want to burden you either. They want to feel like they are still a part of something. They are still here and they are alive and they want to feel "normal" and purposeful.

Truthfully, everyone at work has the best of intentions about being concerned, showing empathy. However, they just don't know how.

So, what's a company to do when they truly want to do the right thing?

They should consider offering Sensitivity training, Communications training, Management training for how to handle employees experiencing illness or caretaking a loved one, coaching for upper level executives navigating their own serious illness and having to balance it all with everything else (e.g. their family, their work responsibilities).

So, to sum this up:
Why should companies be concerned when it comes to serious illness in the workplace?

1. Because it IS the right thing to do... IF you are an employee-centric company -- a company that puts your employees first -- then by taking care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.
2. Because people deserve to be treated with dignity
3. Because it's good for the bottom line
4. Because it -- meaning Illness -- can happen to anyone... even you.
5. Because any serious illness is about accepting the WHOLE Person... the HUMAN being... not just a sick person.
6. Because employees want a way to fit... a way to feel NORMAL in a difficult time
7. And, in the long run, it saves your company money -- it costs more to replace a valued employee.
8. And... lastly and again... because it IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO!

Ann Fry, MSW • • 646-895-9295