Employer Insights

Supporting Your Employees Through Long Term Illness

Posted by Karen
min read
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I recently had 51 weeks off work. I wish I’d been jet setting around the globe but in reality, the only frequent flier miles I racked up were at my local hospital (believe me, I had plenty of jokes with the medical and catering staff about that). When my specialist stood beside my bed and said, “you’ll need to take some time off so we can get this sorted”, neither of us thought I’d be out of action for a year.

In the last few months, I’ve had conversations with others who have been on long term sick leave which has given me insights into how great employers help their staff through, what can be, a very traumatic time in their lives.

Major illness can strike at any age. Lois Keay-Smith, a Careers Expert, worked with Redkite, helping young adults (15-24) with cancer manage their career journeys. Interestingly, many of those who survived their battle with cancer changed their career direction and chose to study something in the healthcare field or became involved with a not-for-profit or social enterprise, ensuring their work (and life) had meaning.  Post-traumatic growth often leads to people pursuing their dreams, which may have previously been merely pipe dreams.

When one of your employees says, “I need to speak with you” …

Receiving a serious diagnosis can be devastating. Life as you know it is about to change. Having ‘the conversation’ with your employer can difficult. I had mine via telephone from a hospital bed and felt so much better when my MD said, “your health is the most important thing. Look after yourself. Don’t worry about us.”

In many workplaces, we refer to our colleagues as our work family – after all, we spend so much time with them. And it’s at times like this that we need our work family to support us, just like our real family does.

Understanding the emotions

Emotional as well as practical support is important if one of your team members is faced with a serious illness. For the individual going through this, there is a mix of emotions, including:

  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Loss of confidence -

Practical steps

As their manager, what can you do to help?

  • Listen and show support. The path ahead may not be clear, and every situation is different.  Some people may require a lengthy time away from work, others may be able to keep working but need flexibility for medical appointments or treatment.

  • Liaise with HR and other relevant staff on behalf of your employee. How much leave do they have available? Can you offer extra time? Some organisations go above and beyond, giving additional paid sick leave. Others have schemes in place where colleagues can donate some of their unused annual leave to those in need. Nobody plans to get sick and whilst having money saved for a ‘rainy day’ or having income protection, sickness or trauma insurance can help, the financial burden of long-term illness can add additional stress.  

  • If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes counselling and psychological support, ensure they have the information needed to access the services.

  • Appoint a ‘buddy’ who is responsible for checking in, or having another team member check in, regularly. Be guided by the individual and circumstances but keep them in the loop with what’s happening at work. Ensure your employee is invited to lunches or social events if they are well enough.

  • Support your other staff members as well – they may be impacted by the news of a colleague’s illness and require help dealing with the situation.

Managing the Return to Work

If your employee is absent for an extended period, it’s important to plan and manage their return to work. This will often mean a phased return, starting with a few hours a day, a few days per week or perhaps time working from home.

You may need to consider different roles or duties for them. If they have undergone chemotherapy and/or immunotherapy, for example, they may need to stay away from public places where the risk of infections is higher. Fatigue may be an issue, caused either by their condition or their medication, especially when they are getting back into the routine of work.

Remember, not all disabilities or illnesses are visible. Your employee may look amazing but don’t assume because they look great, they can instantly pick up where they left off. Returning to work after an illness can take some adjustment so be patient and understanding.

I will always be grateful to Mark Smith and the people2people management team for their support. When I was well enough to return to work, a new role was created for me based on my strengths, with reduced hours and great flexibility. I am proud to work for a wonderful organisation that supported me through my health challenges. Thank you people2people.


* I’d like to thank Annie from Hawaiian for sharing her story and contributing to this post. Hawaiian is another amazing, supportive employer and a highly regarded Western Australian business.

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