To work or not to work when serious illness strikes

If feasible, work can provide a distraction from necessary treatment and allow a form of ‘normal’ life to continue

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

Being told you have a life-affecting disease or illness can obviously come as a shock. But as people come to terms with their diagnosis, many are also forced to consider whether or not to keep working.

Financial concerns mean some of us might struggle if forced to step back from our roles, even temporarily. But often those who are more financially secure are also reluctant to give up working.

When James Dimon, chief executive of the US’s biggest bank JP Morgan, recently announced he had been diagnosed with throat cancer but intended to keep working while undergoing treatment, investors were largely supportive of the move.

In choosing to stay on in his role, Dimon was following other high-powered individuals such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who also vowed to keep going after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012.

Closer to home, Bank of Ireland’s chief executive Richie Boucher has chosen instead to take leave of absence in the month of August to undergo a medical procedure to remove a cancerous polyp.

The choice of whether to take time off depends not only on our financial circumstances but also on the type of job we have and the role it serves in our lives.

“For some, major illness can be life-threatening. For others, it is a treatable chronic illness that they learn to manage,” said Dee McKiernan, a counselling psychologist with experience of working as a psychologist in a hospital setting with cancer patients.

“Work can be a support, a place that provides structure to the day and gives people a sense of identity and normality when the rest of their life is consumed with illness and treatment regimes. It can provide a distraction from the treatment and allow life to function in some kind of a ‘normal’ fashion.”

When former government minister Tony Killeen (62) was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2008, he decided to keep working for a few years before eventually bowing out of politics. Mr Killeen said that, in hindsight, he’s not sure continuing to work was the right decision although he’s not sure if he could have made any other one at that time.

“I used to talk with Brian Lenihan about whether we were doing a disservice to cancer sufferers by continuing to work while we were undergoing treatment because the public didn’t see the times when we were ill and finding it hard going. I wondered whether there were unsympathetic employers who sought to get employees back to work ahead of time by using us as an example of people who were working despite being sick,” he said.

At the time of his diagnosis, the former Fianna Fail TD for Clare was serving as minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, where he was involved in drawn-out EU negotiations over quotas for fishermen.

“I did consider taking a step back on the advice of doctors at the time of my diagnosis, but I knew that dropping someone else into the role at that particular juncture would have been difficult so I sort of muddled along for a while and managed to work fairly well once I discovered the days when the effects of the treatment would be worse,” he said.