As a longtime human resources executive, I’m no stranger to tough conversations at work. My role often requires them. But my own experience last year with a prostate cancer diagnosis and surgery made me realize just how tough it is, for many people, to talk about their health.
It’s practically a taboo–and it shouldn’t be, as the cost of silence can be deadly. Provided the matter is handled empathetically and within the bounds of privacy, a person’s employer can be an important resource when a serious health problem develops.
When I posted about my experience on LinkedIn in September for Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, I was surprised by how many men reached out. They told me they were terrified by their diagnoses and hadn’t told anyone at their jobs. Some were afraid they wouldn’t be able to work or live a normal life. They didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. In some cases, those men had delayed seeking treatment for a year or two, allowing the cancer to spread and become much more dangerous and difficult to treat.
My experience left me feeling like healthy workplaces need “a PSA for PSAs”–a public service announcement for the common test for prostate cancer, known as the PSA. Serious illnesses, particularly those affecting reproductive organs, are extremely private and hard for most people to talk about in any context. And it can be daunting at work, given job performance anxieties and policies that create “no-fly zones” in discussing someone’s body. That’s even more true of mental health, as we’ve increasingly seen during COVID.
There’s a lot companies and managers can do to make it easier for employees to talk about health issues and get the support and guidance they need. The movement around breast cancer through the Susan G. Komen organization, for instance, has turned a disease that once felt stigmatizing into a subject many people are comfortable openly discussing.
For the guys, Movember, when men grow mustaches to raise awareness and money for men’s health issues, is about as far as we’ve gotten. We can do better.
Designate an expert
Each enterprise needs to designate a person, most likely in human resources, who is qualified and trustworthy to answer questions about the complex and multiple issues employees might be facing. Those include care and treatment options, deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses, benefits, and how to navigate our unbelievably difficult healthcare system.
Lead with empathy
Managers should know how to respond with empathy, and they should avoid pretending to be medical experts. Managers are often uncomfortable that they’ll say the wrong thing when just really need to be empathetic. It can be enough to say, “I’m so sorry to hear this.” Then inform the employee about the benefits and support system the company has in place and refer them to the contact person.
For supervisors, this is not the time to mention that your uncle is a doctor, or to wonder aloud how you’re going to manage the team or workload. Instead, you should say something like, “Let me know what you’ll need in terms of time off or alternative schedules. I fully support you in this moment, and there are a lot of ways that you and I can work together to do that.”
Don’t pry, don’t share
Your response should not include, “Tell me what happened!” It’s not the manager’s role to know what’s medically wrong. Don’t seek details, and don’t share any you’ve been given, as it could violate federal privacy laws.
Companies have a role to play. They can visibly support healthcare efforts by arranging for on-site health screenings–just as they might organize flu shot drives to make it easy for employees to protect themselves. They also can show public service announcements, invite experts to talk about difficult subjects or share information about those who are likely to contract a particular disease. According to the American Cancer Society, for example, about one man in 8 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. Simply communicating those facts can help men understand they’re far from alone.
Find your comfort level
Employees should feel free to disclose only what they want or need to. For instance, an HIV-positive employee whose condition has progressed to AIDS might want to keep those details private and simply say, “I’m working with a serious illness.” But someone with COVID, which is easily transmitted through the air, should disclose it to avoid exposing others in the workplace.
Some executives and managers may believe it’s inappropriate or unprofessional to hear about something as personal as, say, the bladder incontinence that can result from prostate cancer surgery. We often think there’s a strict separation between life and work, like in the TV series Severance, with an implanted chip that turns our brain on and off like a switch. But there’s not.
The truth is that talking about being a human being when your body breaks–which we all experience at some level from time to time–is a fundamentally human impulse, and we need to make room for it in the workplace.
In fact, it’s more professional to be accepting of those conversations and to create a safe environment that both recognizes the humanity and respects the privacy of all employees. Their performance and their lives depend on it.
Dean Carter is the chief people and purpose officer of Guild, the leader in opportunity creation for America’s workforce that gave more than 5 million American employees access to education and learning programs, career support, and one-on-one coaching over the past 12 months. He previously led the Talent and Culture function at Patagonia, Sears, and Fossil.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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