This month, the Work and Cancer team received the following question from an employer: 

How can a manager support a team feeling under pressure while covering someone’s absence due to cancer?

Usually this type of situation arises for one of three reasons.

  1. Sometimes, and most typically, team members will not have been told the real reasons for an individual’s absence and will resent being put under pressure because they believe the individual is not pulling their weight and/or not being properly managed.
  2. Sometimes the resentment arises because the manager makes no changes or allowances for the individual’s absence and just asks the team to work harder, which becomes even more of a problem when there are deadlines to be met or new tasks added to the existing workload.
  3. Sometimes managers do make the necessary changes but don’t tell the team why or ask the team for their views on what might work best.

In summary, the real issue is usually about communication with the team; it is rarely if ever about the team resenting the fact that an individual is absent because he/she has cancer.

So, depending on the circumstances, I would advise the manager to get the individual’s permission to inform the team and other colleagues, as appropriate, about the reason for their absence. The Macmillan ‘Essential Work and Cancer’ Toolkit covers this very well and gives plenty of guidance on how to deal with this issue sensitively. I would also strongly advise the manager to discuss what the options are for relieving the pressure of work with the team, and of course with his/her manager. In doing this, the team will feel informed, included and consulted and any resentment is likely to be dissipated.

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