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Chronic Illness

Leading Well With Chronic Illness

Five ways organizations can support employees with chronic illness.

Key points

  • Balancing an additional role of managing medical care requires a multi-layered support system at work.
  • Organizations must recognize the importance of employee well-being as a part of engagement and inclusion.
  • Organizations can support employees with chronic illness by offering accessible resources.
Sally Joy Wolf/ LightWorks
Source: Sally Joy Wolf/ LightWorks

This post is part of my subseries on how organizations can transform leadership development for women, as described through the eyes of experts and women’s lived experiences via interviews. Direct quotes are notated in italics and/or offset.

The journey of women in leadership who are also navigating chronic health conditions is a multifaceted one—whether the journey is as a patient or as a colleague of one. In this post, we’ll delve into one executive’s lived experience with breast cancer and her perspective on how organizations can better assist leaders navigating illness, survivorship, and Stage IV thrivership.

Sally Joy Wolf is a speaker, well-being advocate, and entrepreneur. Her business, LightWorks, uses positive psychology to empower folks to find more meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in their jobs and lives. She also served as a media executive for two decades. While at Time Warner, Sally co-created OneFifty, an incubator that invested seed capital in innovative artists, and also led Multicultural Business Strategy within the corporate parent of HBO, Warner Bros, and Turner.

Navigating Leadership With Breast Cancer

In 2015, Sally was diagnosed with breast cancer while an executive at Time Warner. These three things were especially important for her ability to manage:

  1. Balancing Work and Medical Needs: Sally described the experience to be much like holding two jobs: continuing to be a busy business executive while adding the new role of patient. Work responsibilities rarely disappear with a diagnosis and, well before treatment even begins, consults are logistically demanding. This continues throughout treatment, so the need to balance is ongoing.
  2. Communicating Openly: As a result of a strong established relationship with her boss, Sally felt comfortable openly sharing her breast cancer diagnosis immediately, allowing her boss the opportunity to support Sally as soon as she began navigating the extreme stress and anxiety associated with her many appointments and difficult medical decisions. Sally recalled, “Lisa knew something was wrong before I even had my biopsy. She was the kind of leader who genuinely cared about everyone on her team and immediately jumped in to support personal challenges. I always knew my well-being was genuinely important to her.”
  3. Delegating and Empowering: Sally explained that with her boss’s help, as more information became available about her planned treatment, they were able to co-create a thoughtful plan for delegating, choosing medical leave, and deciding how much to share with colleagues.

How Organizations Can Help

Sally shared that while breast cancer treatment may be temporary for many, the fear of recurrence is substantial. Up to 30% of early-stage breast cancer survivors end up with later-stage metastatic disease. In 2018, Sally’s cancer was found to have spread to her hip bone, and while she is doing well, she continues to be consistently immunocompromised from ongoing treatment.

Based on this experience, here are 5 ways organizations can help support employees navigating the combined physical, emotional, and mental impact of breast cancer treatment.

1. Recognize Individual Well-Being

Sally notes, “The moment has never been better for focusing on well-being in the workplace. At the most micro level, it means that each person gets to show up as themselves in the fullest way and flourish, so you don’t have to hide things or worry about being judged. This is a natural extension of diversity, equity, and inclusion work – I see this as the final frontier of DEI.”

Recognizing the unique needs and challenges faced by employees is the first step. Sally discusses health as another issue of diversity. In some cases, chronic health conditions are inherited — like gender or ethnicity — while in others, like Sally’s, they remain after the acute phase of treatment. Whether physical, mental, or both, Sally emphasizes these are now an ongoing part of the full selves these employees bring to work. Leaders should take an active role in understanding these needs and making accommodations when necessary.

2. Foster an Inclusive Work Environment

Inclusivity is a core aspect of well-being. Companies should foster an environment where every employee, regardless of their background, health, or life circumstances, feels valued and included. This is demonstrated through policies, actions, and support options. For example, employee resource groups (ERGs) can extend their support to individuals facing extended health challenges, providing a safe space for sharing experiences and resources.

When Sally shared her diagnosis with another senior leader in her organization, it created a new special connection when he revealed that two important women in his life had also faced breast cancer. “When you have a culture of well-being and inclusion, it offers opportunities to connect.”

3. Provide Accessible Resources

Organizations can offer accessible resources to employees facing health and well-being challenges, such as support groups and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Providing guidance and support can alleviate the stress and uncertainty experienced by individuals navigating the healthcare system.

“In my experience, being immunocompromised due to ongoing treatment is not covered in the same way by the American Disabilities Act [ADA, which protects people with disabilities from discriminatory practices in the workplace]. So that requires explicit thoughtfulness for companies to ensure we feel – and are – safe. Simple things like sectioning off masked areas for an all-hands meeting or letting us help ourselves first at a team buffet lunch can go a long way toward comfort in crowded workplace settings.”

4. Encourage Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Hiding pieces of oneself to try to fit in requires extra effort and divided attention. Leaders who recognize this can help employees feel comfortable being themselves, which allows them to more easily and fully work without fear of judgment. Sally notes that being more aware of one’s own sources of discomfort empowers constructive communication about needs. A self-aware team is better equipped to collaborate and offer support to each other when needed.

5. Address Employee Concerns and Fears

Understand that employees may have concerns and fears, especially during transitional periods like reentry after the pandemic. Sally explained,

“The pandemic is technically over, and yet there are plenty of people like me who are struggling with the mental health challenges of reentry. As an immunocompromised person, some things still aren’t safe. That doesn’t mean we aren’t excited to be in person. It simply means we are more likely to worry about the office air filtration system, masking, density of people, and even how we travel to work, especially in cities. Public transit can produce anxiety that diminishes our capacity before we even arrive at work.”

Sally suggests that organizations acknowledge these valid fears and consider offering accommodation solutions, such as flexible work arrangements, transportation alternatives, and mental health support.

The journey of women in leadership roles managing chronic health conditions such as metastatic breast cancer is undoubtedly challenging, but with empathetic leadership and a focus on individual well-being, organizations can make a significant difference in their employees' lives.

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