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How to run a business while dealing with an illness

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One day in 2014, I had a piece of news that knocked my life off its expected course. I was attending a routine medical – one of the things we occasionally do to put our minds at rest. I felt fit and healthy, and had no reason to expect anything but good results.

However, one of the tests showed a high PSA level – a potential indicator of prostate cancer. Further tests revealed aggressive prostate cancer requiring immediate surgery – complete removal of the prostate. At the time I was 46, with no noticeable symptoms.

The surgery is life changing. But this was not something that affected just me. As CEO of Balreed, as I then was, I had over 200 employees depending on me, and, deeply personal though this diagnosis was, my cancer had the potential to shake up all their lives, too. I would need to step away from the company. Even if all went well and my absence was temporary, for a hands-on CEO such as myself it would not go unnoticed.

I was always very much in evidence; when you have built up a business, you cannot help but be very personally involved. So how would they react to my illness and absence? Would they worry how it might affect the company, their jobs, their future?

Whilst I could not reassure them about the outcome, it made sense to me to be as open and honest as possible. So, I announced my diagnosis and asked only that they continued as normal in my absence. The response was deeply touching. I received so many good wishes and messages of support – some of which were sent to my PA by those who did not wish to bother me. Although such a thing can be a blow to morale, I genuinely believe this drew all of us closer together.

As things progressed, I made sure they were kept updated so they did not feel left in the dark. Challenges and obstacles are not the real enemy in the workplace, after all – we face those all the time – but uncertainty can undermine the ability to deal with them.

Well, the operation was a success, I made a recovery, and I received a warm welcome back from a workforce who had, of course, continued to do a great job. The story could have ended quite happily right there, but there was one more thing I wanted to do. I was very aware that I had paid to have that medical, and that had I not, I would never have had a clue about the cancer inside of me. That check saved my life – but many cannot afford to have them. I wanted to do something about that for the staff who had supported me.

The first rule in supporting any employee with cancer, at whatever level in the organisation, is not to be reactive. It’s far too emotional a situation for everyone to make up a response on the spot. Everyone would want sympathy and understanding in that situation, but they also want a sense of normality, of control, not crisis. HR need to be having conversations now, preparing policies and templates for conversations for themselves and line managers for each stage of the situation, when a diagnosis is made, and when the employee wants to return to work. 

It avoids awkwardness, emotions taking over when a clear head and real support is needed. A cancer care policy needs to include stock questions for sensible and objective conversations: how are you feeling about work? what changes have you noticed in yourself? Managers need to be briefed on the importance of listening, not getting caught up in the rush to get a valued member of the team back into work, and most of all generating a sense of normality.

There needs to be transparency. The nature of the typical leader/follower relationship can be a personal one, with leaders being seen as senior members of a family. It means that employees will feel excluded and let down if there is secrecy around such a serious issue, both at a personal level for the individual and potentially in terms of the future of the organisation they work for. But the communications always needs to be preceded by a thorough phase of planning and consultation at the senior levels.

It’s not about a single, formal process being followed, but about exploring and determining the preferences of the individual with the cancer diagnosis. What do they feel physically and psychologically about the coming months and what they will be capable of doing, and want to do? How do they want the difficult news to be communicated, and what detail should be provided on how the business will be run during any periods of absence? The major risk to an organisation in terms of absence from the organisation of a leader comes from any lack of planning. This is where early diagnosis is, again, so important. The severe pressure of a late diagnosis leads to a lack of time for consultation and the sudden sense of a need for knee-jerk action.

We approached Check4Cancer – who specialise in cancer awareness and screening programmes in the workplace – and had them offer seminars and PSA tests for male employees and female employee’s partners, dads or friends. Because I wholly owned the company, I was able to offer these tests for free.

The campaign got excellent feedback, and a total of 94 tests were run. For me, there was just one fear – I knew we would find someone for whom the news was not good. But at least this way, they may know early enough to take action – and perhaps avoid the surgery that I had needed. Perhaps it would even save a life.

I hope that we can continue to do more. My business has given me my livelihood, but is also my extended family – and I don’t know any better, more direct way to care for my people than that.

Robin Stanton-Gleaves was founder and group managing director at managed service provider Balreed. In September 2015, Balreed was acquired by the Apogee Corporation, and Stanton-Gleaves is now joint CEO of this new business.

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