WOMEN IN HEALTH & SAFETY
What I’ve learned from supporting colleagues with cancer and their caregivers: In conversation with Kate Field
Kate Field has supported several colleagues living with cancer. This has included supporting individuals during treatment and on their return to work, as well as supporting caregivers whose loved ones have had cancer.
She has worked particularly closely with those going through breast cancer, and in one case became the main supporter for a colleague without family close by. In this interview Kate explains how she’s seen cancer impact people’s working lives and suggests ways in which employers can help.
Kate Field is Global Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at BSI. She is taking a leading role in developing ISO 45003, the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health and safety in the workplace.
This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee my goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s my belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.
Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope it that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.
Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.
You once worked with a woman who was going through breast cancer treatment alone and you became very close. What was her story?
“She married an Englishman and moved to the UK from a different Commonwealth country to be with him. They had two young children but, sadly, the relationship broke down. Then she found a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer.
“Financial support from the children’s father was lacking and she was the sole bread winner for her children. So, when she got cancer, she felt huge, huge pressure to continue working.
“Originally, I sat down with her to conduct a risk assessment and look at reasonable adjustments. But it was clear she was struggling emotionally. She had no other family over here and was going through a lot on her own.”
What were her biggest challenges, emotionally?
“She was obviously concerned about her own health, but she was also hugely concerned about the impact it was having on her children. Add to that, she was worried that she’d be sacked because she wasn’t able to keep up her normal hours.
“Sometimes I think she felt so isolated. She was taking a lot on herself and it was hard for her to step back and see that there might be some other options available.”
How did you support her?
“I was somebody willing to listen, I was somebody trying to help. I was seeing her every two or three weeks and they were emotionally intense meetings.
“With her agreement, I discussed the nature of the treatment with her manager. I explained the impact it was having on her and we came up with a plan of work which was appropriate for her at that time. We came up with a flexible working programme which took into account the fact that she would usually feel unwell two or three days after treatment. We also introduced some homeworking, because there were times when she felt she could do work but didn’t want to be in an office because she would be throwing up a lot.
“I spoke to her about support available for her and her children, particularly Cancer charities. And I encouraged her to use the EAP system I’d implemented – it had a very good section on cancers and treatments and was also a great resource for her line manager.”
Did the rest of her team know what she was going through?
“We had a conversation about what she what she did or didn’t want to be said. Some individuals are very happy to be open and some people want to be very private. I think she was somewhere in between. She was in a close-knit team and some knew she was going through cancer treatment. Others just knew that she was suffering with her health and needed additional support.”
Talking more generally, what do you find is the best way to support a colleague going through cancer treatment?
“Sit down with the individual to discuss what they do want and what they don’t want. Then keep regular communication because what they need could change. It’s hugely, hugely important to have regular conversations. Also sign-post to other sources of help and support, such as EAP and Charities – don’t assume the individual is aware of them or sought them out.
“Also, consider that other colleagues who aren’t aware of what’s happening might start to make comments about changes in behaviour or not keeping up with work. Have a plan for that. You don’t necessarily have to tell them about the individual’s illness or treatment, but it might be helpful to tell them something, such as ‘this individual has a new working pattern’.
What support might colleagues need after they’ve had the all clear?
“As well as the reasonable adjustments made at the time of treatment, it’s important to understand the longer-term impacts. Around the anniversary of remission /the annual check-up, the individuals who I’ve worked with have had a lot of anxiety. Wondering whether they’re going to be clear of cancer can have a huge impact on their mental and physical health.
“I worked with one individual who had had breast cancer, and she had been in remission for many years. But several weeks before that anniversary date you could see the anxiety setting in. And that had an impact in terms of her work performance in that brief period. So, it’s important to bear that in mind and continue to support colleagues, even when in remission.”
What about colleagues who are caring for others with cancer? What considerations should be made for them?
“Firstly, appreciating that if it’s your partner, a parent, a child, or another loved one going through cancer the impact is huge. Often, I find this gets completely overlooked in the workplace. So, make sure there are processes in place for those people. Develop clear support mechanisms and flexible working for anyone providing care and support. The caregiver might want to attend treatments or be there when that person is poorly at home. They could be stressed and tired themselves, so look at whether adjustments can be made to the work they’re doing. Again, it comes back to having regular discussions about what support is needed.
“With the aging population, more people of working age are going to be directly or indirectly affected by cancer. And having some simple processes, good communication and understanding can make such a difference.”
It is estimated that 600,000 people are currently alive in the UK having been diagnosed with breast cancer. 13% of women said they could no longer carry out their job due to long-term effects caused by their breast cancer diagnosis. In this article, Addie Mitchell, Clinical Nurse Specialist at UK charity, Breast Cancer Now, spoke to SHP about how employers can support staff, following diagnosis.
Click here to find out about Breast Cancer Now’s Moving Forward courses.
My breast cancer story and the amazing support I had from work
Read more from SHP on breast cancer in the workplace
Read Kate’s experience of workplace stress.
For more information on ISO 45003, click here
For more articles about work-related stress and ISO 45003, click here
For more information about the Women in Health and Safety network, see our hub page here.
To learn more about the Women in Health & Safety Network workstreams and mailing list, click here.
Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.
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