Research reveals “conspiracy of silence” around illness

By Mungo Davies.

It is the conversation everyone dreads: breaking news that you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, or discussing details of treatment and prognosis. 

As if coming to terms with a critical illness is not challenging enough, there is the added pressure of telling friends and family, and informing colleagues.

But when it comes to the last issue, it seems as if employers could do more to help members of the workforce who have a serious condition talk about their situation.

According to research carried out by Axa PPP Healthcare, a fifth of employers do not know how to speak with their staff about illnesses such as cancer, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease.

What is more, 21 per cent of the people surveyed who have managed an employee with cancer admit to never mentioning the subject in conversation with them.

“This all speaks of a conspiracy of silence around staff illness,” opines Victoria Griffiths, Business Manager at Just Recruitment Group Ltd. “The issue is not that employers don’t care about the wellbeing of their employees, although that may well be the impression they inadvertently create. Rather, the problem seems to be that many managers do not feel able to address what is inevitably a very difficult topic, and employees are all too happy to avoid awkward conversations about their wellbeing.”

Axa PPP’s findings bear this insight out. The research shows that more than a fifth of employers do not feel comfortable discussing any form of illness with their employees, and many admit to feeling especially awkward around those diagnosed with cancer.

“Such inability to deal head on with the issue of employee health and wellbeing, especially when it concerns chronic illnesses such as cancer, creates all sorts of problems for managers,” says Ms. Griffiths. “For example, 41 per cent of Axa PPP’s respondents admit to making allowances for employees returning to work after cancer treatment, but not formally changing their expectations of them. It’s far better to address their needs in a transparent fashion. Failure to do so can lead to significant tensions in the employer-employee relationship, and among the wider team.”

In a further demonstration of the problems caused by the unwillingness of some employers to address health questions with their staff, 17 per cent of respondents said they had told an employee’s colleagues about a cancer diagnosis without ever discussing the condition directly with the staff member in question.

“I can’t emphasise enough that these sorts of breaches of confidence are often the result of very good intentions,” states Victoria. “But unless managers develop their skills in talking with critically ill employees about their condition, they are likely to get themselves into all sorts of difficult situations – some of which could result in them ignoring good employment practice, and maybe even breaking the law by failing to make reasonable adjustments to their working environment.”

The solution, though, is simple: better training of managers in listening skills and pastoral care. As Ms. Griffiths observes, “Effective management is all about communicating well with your team. That makes it vital for employers to develop the ability to talk sensitively and confidentially with employees who are unwell. Then they can design mutually agreeable working patterns and practices that give the employee the best possible chance of making a positive impact in the workplace.”

Evelyn Wallace, cancer care operations manager at Axa PPP Healthcare, agrees: “It can take time to recover from any serious illness, and each person will want to handle things differently. Managers … should listen to what [their employees] need, and be flexible in the support they offer.”

Not sure how to approach difficult conversations with your team members? Read our expert guide for top tips.


© 2018 Just Recruitment Group Ltd. 

Posted on Tuesday Dec 27