New Parents Aren’t the Only Employees Who Need Support in Returning to Work

New Parents Aren’t the Only Employees Who Need Support in Returning to Work

As organizations continue to lean on benefits as a key opportunity to differentiate themselves in a competitive talent market, many are expanding the scope and inclusiveness of their parental leave offerings, granting more paid time away from work to employees of all genders who become parents through birth, adoption, and surrogacy alike. This is partly a matter of making benefits more generous overall, but it’s also about signaling the organization’s commitment to values of diversity and inclusion.

Organizations are also paying more attention to helping working parents and caregivers re-enter the workforce after taking time away to care for their children or sick or elderly relatives. These “returnship” initiatives are specifically geared toward supporting women, who are more likely than men to take such career breaks. Caring for others isn’t the only obligation that forces employees to spend extended periods away from work, however; sometimes, it’s their own health.

In a recent story, Glenn Howatt from the Star Tribune highlighted how advances in cancer detection and treatment are improving the health outcomes of patients, but noted that cancer survivors often don’t get much support in returning to work. From the perspective of HR, the management of cancer patients’ absences may seem similar to managing other instances of medical leave or short-term disability. However, employment experts tell Howatt that standard approaches to managing the exits and subsequent re-entries of employees can’t be so readily applied to cancer patients’ situations:

“The length of leave, 12 weeks, is not a lot for people with a lot of cancers,” said Ann Hodges, an emeritus professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. It’s unclear how many cancer patients lose employment because they’re not ready to return to work. But studies show that just 40 percent are back at work within six months. After a year, it’s still just 62 percent. Researchers have also found that loss of income due to illness is a major contributor to bankruptcy — and that cancer patients are more likely to declare bankruptcy.

The emotional experience of fighting and managing cancer undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression on the personal and professional lives of survivors. Employers of cancer patients have the power to decide whether the impression they make on their employees during this time will be positive or negative.

Research from the marketing practice at CEB, now Gartner, has found that two-thirds of what makes a customer loyal to a business are “feel” factors, or how customers feel when resolving their issues, as opposed to “do” factors, or what customers have to do to resolve their issues. Our latest research from our HR practice shows something similar when it comes to supporting employees’ experiences and loyalty to their organizations.

Looking at the variety of experiences individuals might have while employed with an organization (e.g., hiring a new person on a team, participating in a performance review, missing work to take care of a sick family member or loved one), the most memorable experiences for employees were those that related to their emotional values, not their functional or practical needs at work. Organizations that effectively empathize with what employees value can see a 14 percent increase in employee performance, relative to just a 6 percent increase for those that support employees’ practical needs (the best is to do both, as these factors combined generate a potential increase of 20 percent).

CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can register for our upcoming round of executive briefings to learn more about how HR can optimize the employee experience as their organizations make the shift to a digital work environment.

For an organization, managing the re-entry of a cancer survivor to the workforce is an opportunity to support that employee during one of the most memorable and emotional experiences of their entire life. Here are some ideas for how to make that process smooth, healthy, and productive, so that these employees experience their return to work as a positive part of their recovery:

  • Allow returning cancer survivors to access flexible work arrangements in their first 6-18 months back at work. In the new work environment, where flexible work arrangements are increasingly common, most organizations will find it more straightforward than it used to be to present opportunities for flexibility to cancer survivors as they prepare to come back to work. Employers might also consider offering them special forms of flexibility to allow them to come back to work sooner. This flexibility will allow survivors to accurately assess if they still feel able to perform their day-to-day tasks without the pressure of having to readjust to a demanding schedule right away, giving them the best chance of a successful return to work and making it easier to determine whether a more permanent change in role or structure is needed.
  • Explicitly communicate the flexibility available to survivors. During an already-taxing time of returning to work, miscommunication about expectations at work can only add to a survivor’s stress. It is essential to clearly communicate both formal policies around flexibility as well as informal expectations and options for returnees. Are there certain cultural norms or ways of working that have changed since the survivor was at work? How have new parents or others returning from short- or long-term disability approached returning to work? Don’t wait for a returning employee to ask these questions; proactively bring the answers to them.
  • Understand changes in cancer survivors’ professional aspirations and interests. Such a life-altering experience has the very real potential to alter survivors’ overall outlook, including their views of their professional prospects. HR teams and survivors’ managers should not make any assumptions about whether and how survivors’ aspirations may have changed while they were on leave, and if they have, those changes should be supported, not discouraged.
  • Invite cancer treatment experts to discuss the realities of a cancer survivor returning to work. The average manager, leader, or even HR professional isn’t aware of the side effects and other medical implications of cancer treatment and ongoing health maintenance. Inviting medical experts to educate the HR community (or even the workforce in general) about these implications equips them to better understand the unique circumstances of their survivor colleagues, including any lingering short-term disabilities or challenges those colleagues may be facing.
  • Nudge cancer survivors’ managers toward keeping up with their direct reports’ progress and concerns. Survivors’ managers will likely be chiefly responsible for overseeing their return to work, but managers may not be fully up-to-date with a survivor’s treatment progress and plans. This makes integrated management of a survivor’s re-entry that much more important. As the HR community manages the logistics of a survivor’s leave and re-entry processes, identify opportunities to push out timely communications to managers, with the goal of reminding them of both mandatory and recommended actions, both as the survivor prepares to come back to work and in the months following their return to work.