HR Can Ease Stress on Employees With Cancer

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By Genevieve Douglas

Nov. 8 — Cancer is a notoriously complex illness to deal with, but employers can ease some of the burden on workers with the disease by clearly communicating what benefits and resources are available and helping them understand all their options, according to a recent report from the Northeast Business Group on Health.

Guidance from human resources departments is particularly helpful when employees with cancer are navigating how health benefits apply to sites of medical care, such as how specific medical practices handle palliative care or second opinions, Jeremy Nobel, physician and executive director of the NEBGH’s Solutions Center, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 7. Additionally, employers must make sure workers have access to high quality care as easily as possible so that they can make choices in the best interests of themselves and their families, he said.

According to the report, “High Value Cancer Care: Guidance for Employers,” HR can also play an important role in connecting employees and their families to behavioral health services and assistance in dealing with the financial complexity associated with cancer treatments. When it comes to behavioral health resources, Nobel recommended HR be sure to:

  •  communicate the importance of psycho-social care to manage stress, depression and anxiety through support groups;
  •  make direct services available through employee assistance programs; and
  •  ensure cancer treatment centers that are part of the employer’s network have behavioral health support along with the traditional clinical care, as is appropriate.

Nobel said workers diagnosed with cancer or in the midst of treatment will need information from HR on leave programs, short- and long-term disability, and ombudsman services. In some cases, help navigating medical bills and benefits forms is essential to an employee whose emotional reserves are already stretched thin, he said.

“Anything to reduce the burden of navigating these complex diagnoses is great for employees and employers alike,” Nobel said.

Employers Must First Enable Trust

One of the biggest challenges for employers and HR happens when a worker with cancer doesn’t trust their recommendations.

“If you ask the average employee in a major health crisis who they would immediately turn to, the employer and health plan is maybe eighth or ninth on the list,” Rich Fuerstenberg, a Princeton, N.J.-based senior consultant in Mercer’s health and benefits business, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 8.

There may be a lack of trust in whether the health plan will steer the employee to the best course of treatment, Fuerstenberg said, and employers need to create that trust so employees can rely on their resources. Fuerstenberg wasn’t involved with the NEBGH report.

One potential strategy for employers is to designate the company’s disability vendor as the first place for an employee with cancer to go for information, he said. Another is employing a third-party concierge health service that can help with everything from finding a doctor for the employee to scheduling appointments and deciphering medical bills, he said. By giving employees a starting point in a time of crisis, employers can best position themselves to be a resource of information, Fuerstenberg said.

Fuerstenberg also recommended that HR have a game plan for when an employee returns to work following cancer treatments. Those plans need to be tailored to the specific wants of the worker, he said. “Co-workers will want to be supportive, but some employees may want to keep their medical journey private,” he said. In general, employers should keep an individual’s medical information private, because sharing that sensitive information could open up the company to legal risk, he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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