Managing employees returning from critical illness

4 March 2017 | Leave a comment

How can line managers best support employees returning to work after critical illness? Nicola Bourne, author of The Fabulous Woman’s Guide Through Cancer, shares her ideas.

People are often surprised to hear that recovering after a long or chronic illness can be scary and overwhelming.  When I recovered from bowel cancer in 2013, I went from having a team of oncologists, doctors, specialist nurses and support staff with regular appointments, phone calls and updates to – nothing.  The support system that had cocooned me for the last year and a half, disappeared as they (rightly so) moved on to the next patient.  This leaves you feeling vulnerable which is scary and overwhelming.  But at the same time you are desperate to get back to ‘normal’ life and work.

Here are a few ideas to make this transitional time easier for you and your employee.


Listen to what they say, not what you think you know

With many serious or chronic illnesses, it can be easy to think you know about the illness if someone you know had the same condition and you got to witness how they moved through it.  Preconceived ideas can lead people to have strong opinions on how others should feel, be, or react, but in many incidents, the experiences will not the same.

Taking cancer as an example, breast cancer is a vastly different experience to bowel cancer.  Even within Breast cancer there are variables such as the type, the stage, the grading, the amount of surgery needed, the prognosis, the persons own psychological response and so on.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to any illness.

Bare this in mind when your employee is talking to you about their illness and the impact that it has had.  Approach conversations about their illness like you have never heard of cancer before, ensuring an open mind.

Your employee may have bodily changes that needs to be catered for when they return to work.  Take time to understand extra needs they have whilst remembering some symptoms may emerge over time and equally some will fade.  Make time to check-in regularly with your employee to make sure that their current physical and emotional states are being catered for.


Ongoing support

The end of a serious illness, is often not the end.  It can take months to get over surgery and treatment and there will inevitably be follow up appointments.  Let your employee know that you understand aftercare is a vital part of their recovery and continue to offer support when they need time off for follow-up care.

Energy levels will be more affected than your employee may realise they will be.  I remember finishing cancer treatment and removing my whole support network as I was desperate to get back to my normal life.  I quickly found that I just couldn’t keep up with life as it was before I had cancer, not straight away anyhow.  The result was that about a month later, I was sick, depleted, exhausted and feeling worse than when I had just finished my treatment.  I had not taken into account how much my energy levels were going to be affected and I wasn’t able to do everything straight away.

Encourage your employee to keep their support system in place, especially for the first few months.  They may initially feel well enough to do everything but exhaustion could slowly start accumulating and hit them after a significant period, which is when the support system may be needed again.

If possible, try and encourage your employee to build their hours slowly or offer a combination of working in the office and working from home, allowing a transitional period back to full-time work.


Have company policies easily available

Getting ill is often an expensive business.  Even when being treated by the NHS, not being work, needing to pay for additional childcare, having to make adjustments to your lifestyle, partners needing to take time off their work to assist, are just some of the examples of where a financial burden occurs.

Make it easy for your employee to find out how they stand with regards to finance, sick pay and returning to work sick pay but also allow easy access to HR, legal advice and any company policies on relevant issues such as returning to work and taking time off for follow up appointments.  The clearer you can be, the less overwhelming these concerns will be for your employee and it will save any unnecessary confusion for either of you.


Offer a company update

If someone has been off work for a while, their colleagues will know something has been going on, even if they aren’t fully aware of the details.  Ask your employee if they would like you to fill in their colleagues on why they have been off, to save endless people asking what’s been going on, on their first day back.

This could make coming back a little less overwhelming but do be certain to check with your employee before as they may not want you doing this on their behalf.


Always remember

Just because someone doesn’t look ill, doesn’t mean that they aren’t feeling ill.  A lot of symptoms aren’t displayed externally, which brings us back to the first point of making sure that you listen to what your employee says and take things from there.


Nicola was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer in 2012. After being told she may not survive, she has been ‘all clear’ since 2014.

Nicola writes for many publications including The Huffington Post on the topics of cancer, women’s health and family life and has appeared on Sky News, Good Morning Britain and ITV News.

The Talent Keeper Specialists thanks Nicola for writing for us.




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