When Camilla Gunn’s colleague at Westpac was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, Camilla realised the experience for him and for other staff would have been easier if there were some guidelines for coping with cancer in the workplace.
“I’m a proud Westpac employee and I really believe in the company credo of helping our customers and the community – we’ve been the first with paid maternity leave, we have leave for people with domestic violence – yet I feel there really wasn’t the guidance or support to deal with the situation,” she says. “In my opinion, the outcomes could have been better.”
Camilla looked for an online toolkit Westpac could buy to help advise employees who have cancer – but discovered there wasn’t any.
“I started to talk to friends and acquaintances who had cancer and been employed, both at Westpac and other companies, and discovered that there’s a gap,” she says.
“Then I saw a statistic from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that said 354 people per hundred thousand of working populations ages 20 through to 69 have a cancer diagnosis every year. If I look at Westpac’s workforce, there’s 40,000 of us. That’s like 120, conservatively, people every year,” she says.
“When I saw that statistic, I was horrified. So I thought, I’m going to try and do something myself.”
Issues facing employees with cancer – and their colleagues
“Having cancer is very challenging – but working and having cancer adds a whole layer of complexity regarding work-related issues,” Camilla says. “If I take it from the employee’s perspective, it’s ‘Can I work? How do I return to work? What if I just want to do part time? What do I tell my co-workers? Do I have to tell my manager? What if I find I’m not coping? What if I’m struggling financially?’
“Then people like line managers have issues such as ‘Am I doing the right thing? Are there certain policies and procedures in place that I should be aware of? Am I saying the right things? Can I ask them how they are feeling today? What if I say the wrong thing? What are the leave policies?’
“One of the most powerful things I discovered is that most Australian companies have a lot of support – but it’s not all situated in one spot,” Camilla says. “And if you have cancer, you can’t be expected to look on several different intranet sites to figure out what’s available to you – you want it in one place, and this toolkit does just that.”
A history of helping
Her colleague’s diagnosis wasn’t Camilla’s first brush with cancer.
“My Dad died of cancer about 15 years ago,” she says, adding that it was the kindness and compassion shown by a volunteer that helped improve his quality of life.
“It was such an eye opener for me when I saw how grateful my Dad was to this person,” Camilla says.
“So when my Dad died I promised myself that I would always do my best to volunteer in the cancer community, and over the past 15 years I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. I’ve done fundraising, chemo wards, and most recently with the Cancer Council I worked with their in-home support, which is where you go into people’s homes and help them with practical tasks such as dog walking, light cooking or shopping, while they are going through their treatment.”
As such, it felt natural for Camilla to contact Cancer Council NSW about what could be done for Westpac.
Developing the Working with Cancer online toolkit
“We do a lot of return-to-work help for people who are either having treatment or have finished their treatment,” says Jill Mills, Cancer Council NSW’s Senior Project Officer for Survivorship Programs.
“So Camilla’s enquiry about doing something for people in the workplace ended up on our desks. And I’ll always, if someone wants to do something, listen to them, hear what they’re trying to do, and when I first spoke to her I thought: this is interesting.”
Jill began meeting up with Camilla at lunchtimes, sometimes with other Cancer Council NSW colleagues, to offer advice and guidance.
“I gave her a lot of information about returning to work when you’re either in treatment or have finished treatment,” Jill says. “I just kept sending her journal articles so she could read the research.”
Camilla then began interviewing people with cancer in addition to talking to the different departments in Westpac – from HR to the legal teams – to gain an understanding of what needed to be done.
The launch of the Working with Cancer toolkit
The Working with Cancer toolkit was launched in August 2015, and both Camilla and Jill believe it is the first of its kind in Australia.
When Westpac announced the launch to its employees, it immediately hit a nerve.
“My email box was flooded,” Camilla says. “I had 200 or 300 emails from people just saying ‘thank you so much, I was in this situation a couple of years ago’, or ‘when I was a teller there was a friend that was diagnosed with cancer and I never knew what to say, I wish I’d had this’ … so it was just so amazing to have people email and be so grateful.”
Then in December 2015 Camilla won the Westpac CEO Award for Community and Environment Individual for her toolkit.
“I got a $10,000 cheque, which I gave to Cancer Council NSW in gratitude of the incredible work they do in the community and the support that they’ve given me to implement the toolkit,” she says.
Camilla would love to see other organisations implement something similar to help support their employees when cancer strikes.
Jill says, ”Cancer Council has developed a range of information for employers so it makes sense for us to work closely with organisations like Westpac to produce such a resource.”
Resources for employers and employees working with a cancer
You can also find out more about working with a cancer diagnosis by calling Cancer Council NSW 13 11 20 Information and Support line or by looking at the following resources:
- Cancer, Work & You
- Employer and workplace resources
- Webinars about returning to work, coping, and legal rights.