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Tuesday, 13 March 2012 11:39

What if the boss gets cancer? Gilda’s Club developing tools to manage cancer in the workplace

Written by  Karen Gentry
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GRAND RAPIDS — Oftentimes employees don’t know what to say or what to do when a co-worker or boss is faced with a cancer diagnosis, and it’s important to know there is no cookie-cutter approach in offering support.

Shellie Edwards, co-owner of Above & Beyond Banquets and Catering, a full-service catering company servicing 15-20 venues in West Michigan, was diagnosed with cancer in early 2011 and underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

“Having (gone) through this, I know each person deals with cancer differently,” Edwards said. “Be patient and understanding. Some people want to work and be there. Others will be too weak to do it.”

Edwards said it helps to have an “amazing management team.” During her treatment that included chemotherapy once a week and radiation up to five days a week, she relied on her employees including five full-time managers.

“The challenges were more for them than for me. I was able to do what I needed to do,” said Edwards, noting if the managers had questions or concerns they would check in with her.

Mary Beth Klingman, administrative assistant and manager for Above & Beyond, said Edwards’ absence was definitely felt, but the management team stepped up and took care of the business.

“As a management team, we banded together and did what we needed to do,” Klingman said. “We made sure our relationships with clients and vendors were where they needed to be.”

Some area businesses have reached out to Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids for guidance about what to do when a business owner or employee has been diagnosed with cancer. Gilda’s Club is an 11-year-old organization that offers free emotional health care to children, adults, family and friends facing cancer.

The organization is holding its second annual LaughFest from March 8-18. Proceeds from the events go toward programming.

Wendy WiggerWendy Wigger, VP of community relations and program development for Gilda’s Club, said the organization is in the early stages of packaging programs for businesses. A program team of licensed professionals will bring conversation, tools and resources to the workplace to help address issues and the emotions of dealing with someone diagnosed with cancer.

“We’re able to provide that space and opportunity to create some conversations that we oftentimes don’t want to talk about,” Wigger said.

As the workplace has become the neighborhood of yesterday, it’s not always possible to leave troubles at home, and businesses need to be responsive to the whole person. Wigger noted one in two men and one in three women would face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

“It’s important to provide a corporate culture that is supportive of employees when big things in life happen,” Wigger said. “Businesses expect us to bring our business self to the work environment. The reality is, things happen outside that still impact our business day.”

Varnum LLP turned to Gilda’s Club for guidance when members of the nearly 200-person firm have faced a cancer diagnosis, said Carroll Velie, human resources director at Varnum. It often leads to roundtable meetings with Gilda’s Club professionals to discuss strategies to help co-workers. For example, one Varnum employee undergoing chemotherapy was given a gold bead for a necklace each time she went in for treatment.

“There’s a story connected to each bead. I know that was very meaningful to her,” Velie said.

Velie noted that one cancer patient might like the idea of a box at their front door where co-workers could drop off food, cards and gifts, but other colleagues just want privacy.

Carroll Velie“It’s about learning to be sensitive to individuals and their reaction to cancer,” Velie said.

Varnum also offers a compassionate leave bank where employees can give one of their days to help a co-worker. Velie stressed that employers have to be mindful of privacy issues and cognizant of policies and practices, yet at the same time be engaged in the lives of their employees.

Cases of terminal cancer bring more challenges. Velie said in these cases it’s not about the “good fight and we’re going to beat this” but about providing dignity for the person.

Succession planning issues

Where there’s a terminal diagnosis or serious illness of a business owner, leaders often have to make quick and reasoned decisions, according to Andrew Rassi, partner with Schnelker, Rassi & McConnell, a Grand Rapids-based law firm working primarily with family owned businesses. He noted the three basic areas of succession planning include ownership, management and leadership with the latter issue being the most complex because it involves leadership growth strategies.

“Taking over leadership is a real tough one and a lot of the reason second-generation businesses don’t do that well,” Rassi said.

He noted a business owner who has built a business for 30 years might not have given the next generation any good experience to lead the company. Rassi said it’s hard to find the person who is invested in the company and has the ability to lead the company. Family members may be invested but have little leadership ability, while a good employee with experience may not be invested in the company.

“For a lot of families, 80-90 percent of net worth is tied up with the company,” Rassi said.

With serious illness, decisions must be made about whether to groom someone to lead the business or to prepare the company to be ready to sell.

Problems arise when business owners don’t give up any control of their businesses until it’s too late.

Rassi advises business owners to have in place a plan that can always be changed.

“Everybody in the company feels better when there’s a plan,” Rassi said. “In bad times, seek advice and counsel and do the best you can. You can put something in place, and that is better than nothing.”

Tips for co-workers

  • Your involvement with co-workers diagnosed with cancer will depend upon the relationship you had prior to that diagnosis.
  • Communicate and ask if they want to discuss their cancer, whether they want to talk about it every day, and let them know you are there for them.
  • Send a card, telephone or visit when a co-worker is home or in the hospital.
  • Ask for specific examples about how you can help.
  • Keep the work environment as “normal” as possible.
  • Don’t isolate or pull away from a person with cancer.
  • Don’t feel it’s your responsibility to “cheer-up” the person with cancer; rescue them or think you always must talk about cancer.

Ways to offer support

  • Bring fun movies and home videos.
  • Fill an iPod with soothing and upbeat music.
  • Bring in or send funky hats and scarves.
  • Buy unscented lotions, soaps and shampoos.
  • Share sick days.
  • Bring comfort foods such as soups, cookies and mashed potatoes.
  • Take up a collection to hire a housekeeper or someone to mow the lawn.
  • Take their kids out for a meal.
  • Pick up or drop-off their kids from school activities or sports events.
  • Offer to take care of a pet.
  • Drive the person to the doctor or drugstore or take her out for coffee.
  • Send handwritten cards and emails, even when no one answers.
  • Buy gift cards to restaurants, grocery stores.
  • Offer gift certificates for a massage, pedicure, manicure.
  • Do the laundry, run errands.

Source: Gilda’s Club, adapted from www.cancercare.org

Read 2673 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 11:09

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