One of the most stressful elements of falling ill is wondering what is going to happen to your career plans or your job security. Coming from a self-titled control freak, I understand completely how debilitating it feels to worry about your job (see my piece on “Career vs Illness”). However, keeping your employer in the loop is extremely important to ensure you can work together to find solutions to your concerns as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the end, my relationship with my employer was crucial for my overall wellbeing on my path to recovery, so I implore others out there to remember these three key points:
- Know your rights
- Ensure you keep your employer well informed of your situation as soon as possible
- It pays to be considerate
I had been employed with the same company in various different roles for 6 years when I was initially diagnosed. The team I was with at the time I had been part of for 4 of those years, so I was well acquainted with everyone and felt completely comfortable speaking very candidly with the senior staff members. It should be no surprise then that as soon as my initial MRI showed a tumour in my brain, I called my boss right after I called my mother! I understand that others may not have such a close relationship at their workplace, and the news of being diagnosed with cancer is something they would avoid becoming public knowledge at work as late as possible. Some may be concerned about the uncertainty of the implications having cancer has, such as the implication that you may need to take a significant amount of time off work. Will your boss approve of this absence? Will your colleagues be empathetic when they have to take on your load? If you return to work, will your performance be affected by the trauma you have just endured?
Rest assured, no matter what your relationship at work is like, your employer is required per the Fair Work Act to take reasonable steps to assist you during treatment. They cannot dismiss you if your absence is less than 3 months in one year and you have provided medical certificates outlining your situation. This 3-month period will generally exhaust your sick leave entitlements, annual leave entitlements and any other leave entitlements that will be outlined in your employment contract, as well as include a period of unpaid sick leave. Even if you need have exhausted all your leave entitlements and require more than 3 months of leave, your employer may still not be able to lawfully dismiss you.
Anyone who feels their job security is at risk, or feels pressured by their employer to be cut-off, you are perfectly within your right to present your case by submitting an unfair dismissal application or general protections claim if you are dismissed on the grounds of your disability. I strongly encourage anyone who is unsure of where they stand from a legal perspective with their employer to contact the Fair Work Commission on 1300 799 675 to have a discussion about your rights. Remember if you wish to dispute an unfair dismissal, you will need to do so within 21 days of being dismissed, so I strongly encourage that you get in contact with the Fair Work Commission well in advance to avoid unnecessary stress.
As I was very lucky to feel secure in my job and I had a close relationship with my team, I was also blessed with additional perks. The moment my team knew about my situation, not only did they send me flowers and cards, but they also offered to pay for a cleaner to maintain my apartment each week. It was a very kind gesture and although my apartment was very small and easy to maintain myself, it was one less thing to worry about (and it did feel great to have a spotless home environment all the time!).
My partner’s mother, who was in the process of battling aggressive breast cancer, referred me to her naturopath who in turn supplied me with many different daily vitamins and supplements, as well as a ‘FODMAP’ diet plan to abide by to ensure I would recover as quickly as possible from my upcoming treatment (see my piece on “Healthy Living” for full disclosure). The diet required me to be creative with meal choices and to boost the variety of the food I was eating, as well as purchase organic foods only. As I started to find new recipes to fulfil the diet brief, I realised that the cost of the ingredients were starting to add up and I wasn’t sure whether it would be feasible to get the variety I was advised I needed on my current budget. When I voiced these concerns to one of my managers and two of the head partners of my team, I wasn’t sure how they would react. I knew I needed more money, but they were already providing me with a cleaner. When they told me they would pay for my groceries as well as a cleaner, I was overwhelmed by their generosity and thought I had certainly reached their threshold (after all, my team is not the highest power in the firm and they had policies in place as to what sort of hand-outs they could provide to staff during separate times).
It was when I started accumulating debt following my dental surgery and all the other additional activities I was under-taking to ensure my health was at its peak (to the best of its ability) that I had to turn once again to my employer. I was feeling very discouraged after being rejected by Centrelink, I couldn’t get any odd-jobs and I had already become poor enough to have to sell some of my jewellery, so I asked my employers whether there was anything further they could do for me. They knew I had been diagnosed during the worst possible time – I had just entered the property market and therefore had a mortgage to pay, but I also had one last set of exams to pass before I could be promoted, which were due to be sat whilst I was undergoing surgery to remove my tumour (so those exams had to be delayed until I was through treatment). The salary continuance scheme they had in place was based on the salary I was earning at the time I was diagnosed, and although they tried to negotiate changing the salary base to what I expected to earn at the time, unfortunately the insurer could not make this happen. I was desperate and they were very concerned about my wellbeing at this point – they knew I was struggling and I was exhausting all possible options available to me. In the end, they worked together to devise a solution – I would have my salary continuance cancelled and be paid at the rate of my previous job title held with them (which worked out to be $20k more before tax), thereby providing me with enough money to not have to choose which additional treatments I couldn’t afford to continue.
Again, I am very aware that my situation with my employer is unique and I do not expect many others will be as lucky I was to be part of a team that had the ability to be so flexible in accommodating my needs. However, they key take-away is that it pays to be completely open and honest with your employer. The sooner they become aware of what is going on for you, the sooner they can make arrangements to work around it. I like to think most employers will be very sympathetic towards your situation, however if you are unsure about how such news will be received, remember that you are protected against discriminatory behaviour by Australian law and have every right to dispute any unfair treatment.