AccelPro | Employment & Labor Law
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On Cancer and the Future of Work

On Cancer and the Future of Work

With Erin Grau, Co-founder & COO of Charter and cancer survivor | Interviewed by Matt Crossman

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. Today, we are featuring a discussion with Erin Grau, a breast cancer survivor and Co-founder & COO of Charter, a company that focuses on the future of work. She offers tips on ways companies can codify empathy in order to create a supportive workplace for employees battling cancer.

“Businesses don’t know how to manage people anymore,” Grau says. “And in the absence of political solutions, there’s just more pressure on companies to step up and lead in things like racial justice, support for caregivers, mental health and well-being.”

Aside from being the right thing to do, having such policies is a good business move, too, she says. “I felt so loyal to my company for supporting me through this moment. You can support better engagement and retention. And doesn’t everyone want to work somewhere that cares deeply for their employees and is there for them?” Grau says. “For me, in the most devastating moment of my family’s life, having a company show up for me and support me was huge.”

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Matt Crossman, Host: We’re going to talk about a list of policies you’ve developed for companies to create a supportive workplace for employees battling cancer. Before we get to that, let’s talk about your background. You’re the Co-founder and COO of Charter. What is Charter?

Erin Grau: Charter is a future of work, media and research company that I started with a colleague from the New York Times and his colleague from The Atlantic. We started it in 2021. And what we wanted to do was create a playbook for this new era of work. There were a lot of trends we were seeing, and I’m sure a lot of your members experienced, too.

Our lives are more intertwined with work than ever before. And yet the way we work is, was, continues to be, really outdated. Businesses don’t know how to manage people anymore. And on top of that, in the absence of political solutions, there’s just more pressure on companies to step up and lead in things like racial justice, support for caregivers, mental health and well-being.

Those are things we’re going to talk about today. It’s been exciting to see it resonating with leaders and organizations we’re working with.

MC: You’ve come up with a list of policies for companies to create a supportive workplace for employees battling cancer. You learned these lessons the hard way. You’re five years cancer free now. If “congratulations” is the appropriate term, then I say “congratulations.” Walk me through that journey and tell me how a supportive workplace helped you make it to that milestone.

EG: Thank you, so much. I actually love hearing congratulations. The hardest I’ve ever worked on anything was working to become cancer free. I was diagnosed in 2018, and it did not occur to me that I would stop working at all. After the doctor called me to tell me the results of my biopsy, which was that I had breast cancer, the first person I told was my husband. And the second was my boss at the startup where I was working.

I had a very startup-y collection of roles, which was head of business operations, social impact, customer experience, people and culture. The thing I remember the most in those first days was my husband and my boss telling me the same thing, which is, “We’re going to get through this together.”

I had a really aggressive form of breast cancer. I found a lump. I was diagnosed one week to the day later, and I started chemo the following week.

I did the thing everyone tells you not to do, which is I started googling, and I was searching for tips on how to work through cancer, and I was really shocked to find that there was really almost nothing.

Instead I found article after article with info on how to hide a cancer diagnosis and hide side effects from chemo. Even more discouraging is that one of the things I found was that the unemployment rate for survivors of breast cancer was actually higher than the general population of women thanks to discrimination and difficulty juggling treatment and side effects.

I had such a supportive work environment, and I feel so lucky to say that because not everyone has that experience. I worked with my boss to prioritize my work and create a really flexible schedule to accommodate chemo and radiation and surgeries. And this was back in 2018 before many of us even knew how to work productively remotely or work with a distributed team.

And certainly the tech was much worse in 2018. So I kind of feel like no one has any excuse now that we’ve learned so much, and we just have so much better technology and understanding and access.

I had the schedule I needed, and later I had leave. And I felt really empowered to work flexibly when I needed to and take leave when I needed it, especially because my boss was really evaluating me on the outcomes. She was not judging me for the time I did or did not spend in the office.

MC: Not everybody gets through it the way you did with a supportive workplace. I think it’s helpful if we compare and contrast what happened with you and what happened with your sister.

EG: The same year that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my twin sister’s daughter, Edie, was diagnosed with a very rare form of leukemia. She was only one at the time. And my sister was still in her first year at her job, after years and years of service at another job. So in her first year of her new job, she exhausted her Family Medical Leave Act time while caring for Edie in the hospital.

And she ultimately lost her job.

The HR person called her in tears when they had to let her go because there was just nothing more that they could do to keep her role open, even though at that point she was not getting paid. Her daughter died a few months later, and my sister’s career never recovered.

And so in the same year, twin sisters in the same city needed accommodations and support. One got it and stayed in the workforce, and one didn’t and was forced to leave it.

And so it’s very clear to me the difference employers can make in both health outcomes and career longevity.

MC: You are addressing HR executives and employment attorneys who are in positions where they can either come up with policies or certainly influence policies and procedures. What do you want them to take away from this? 

EG: Half of the people listening will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. There’s more early detection, there’s more advancements in treatment, and that’ll just continue, which means that more people will be living and working with cancer.

And so support for people like me—people going through cancer treatment—has never been more urgent. That’s the why.

The how is, in HR work and in legal work certainly, you want policies applied fairly, equitably and humanely. So many attorneys and HR teams lean on FMLA, which is awesome. We should have FMLA. And building on FMLA, it’s really about what policies, what resources, what support can you bring into your company and codify so that you can better support people who are going through cancer treatment or are supporting a child or a spouse or a parent who is going through cancer treatment or has a long-term health issue.

And there’s also a business case here, right? I felt so loyal to my company for supporting me through this moment. You can support better engagement and retention. And doesn’t everyone want to work somewhere that cares deeply for their employees and is there for them? For me, in the most devastating moment of my family’s life, having a company show up for me and support me was huge.

The time I took off from my mastectomy or the changes to my job or the flexibility is a rounding error to them. But for me, it was everything, and it was just so meaningful.

It’s important to think about what the policy is and make sure it’s fairly applied. But I think the human element of this feels important to reiterate, too.

MC: Your position with Charter, plus that experience of the good and the bad dealing with cancer, I think uniquely prepared you to create these policies. So No. 1 is cultivate open communication and foster a workplace culture where open dialogue about both challenges and triumphs is encouraged. What do you mean by that?

EG: I’ve seen the data: 50 percent of employees with cancer are afraid to tell their employer about their diagnosis. Too many of them do not have workplace support they need. And again, there’s earlier detection, there’s advances in treatment, and that means more people like me are living and working with cancer.

It’s not a death sentence for everyone. And so the support now is really urgent. And in order to get the support, you really have to start with giving employees the psychological safety to be open about their diagnosis. For me, talking to my colleagues about my experience and working with my boss really made all the difference.

I was in active treatment for 16 months. It was really grueling, and because I was able to be open, I got support from my colleagues, and also they shared stories of their mothers, their sisters, their friends, who survived, which was really so helpful for me mentally and emotionally.

They wrote me letters of encouragement. I still have them. I have hundreds of letters and cards from that time, many from my colleagues.

It’s not just in the big moments, it’s in the small ones, too. And I think it starts with day to day, like in your one-on-ones as a manager asking how someone is really doing or having team check ins. We use red, yellow, green. At the beginning of every meeting, everyone shares, how am I showing up today?

The ability to do that really starts in the day to day. Because I had all of that, when I was diagnosed, I was able to say, this is what I need.

MC: One of the things that I found useful about your proposed policies is that there’s a why at the end of them, the second one in particular. The policy is promote flexible work arrangements to all employees, which allows them to balance their professional responsibilities with their health and well-being, ensuring no one has to choose between the two.

EG: I talk about flexibility all the time in my work, so not just as it relates to a cancer diagnosis. I wrote a piece last year for Fortune that was called Flexible Work is Feminist, so I talk about flexible work a lot.

In this context, treatments are so grueling. The schedules are really demanding. For me, chemo days were every Wednesday for six months. I would get there between 8 and 9, and I wouldn’t leave until after 3 p.m. So those are extremely grueling, long days. And then there’s the side effects of the chemo that follow. 

Having flexible schedules or the option to work from home or work from, in my case the hospital, is crucial. I used to put an away message in Slack that was WFH—work from hospital—with a little pink ribbon. The ability to do that really reduced my stress and allowed me to actually focus on recovery and still contribute to my team, which was really meaningful. Keeping that connection to work and building a life that I would recognize after my diagnosis was so important to me and to my recovery.

MC: Policy No. 3 that you suggest is foster empathy and create an inclusive environment where employees facing health challenges feel supported, understood and valued. What does that look like in practice?

EG: Like with all inclusion work, there’s a big education piece. In my case, I was lucky because I had colleagues step up to help educate my team and other colleagues about the side effects and challenges and how they could offer support. And that is really, I think, part of what fostered a really supportive environment, one of empathy and understanding. It made work a source of comfort, truly, and not a source of stress.

I was a little stressed going to work bald. I lost my hair, and toward the end of treatment I lost my eyebrows and my eyelashes. And that is kind of stressful. 

When I returned to work after a double mastectomy, I was very open about it. Everyone knew I had this major surgery, I was going to look different, and I didn’t totally know how to handle that. And I don’t think anyone else totally knew how to handle it. But I think that that education piece feels really important.

MC: I imagine HR executives and employment attorneys listening to this thinking, that sounds like a wonderful workplace environment. How do you go about codifying empathy?

EG: I think that’s a great question. I think a big part is education. I think you send signals to your team about the things that matter to you. 

We signed the Working with Cancer Pledge. And that’s a signal to all employees that this is something that matters to us. It’s also a great place for resources like this and scripts about how to have these conversations. I don’t think empathy is expecting someone to have a deep understanding without educating them, or having tough conversations without scripts.

I don’t think it’s just about cancer. How do you create a culture where people feel open to sharing parts of themselves, challenges they’re having, health or otherwise? How do you help people be better listeners and make sure that you’re thinking about employees, not just for the work they’re doing for you, but as full people with dreams and hopes and things they love outside of work. Those are all part of the answer to your question.

MC: We’re going to get to policy number four here. The first one was cultivate open communication. The second one was promote flexible work arrangements. The third one was foster empathy and an inclusive environment. The fourth one is commit to long-term support beyond remission and develop policies and resources that cater not only to immediate needs, but offer sustained support post treatment.

It’s “develop policies and resources” that I’m particularly interested in there.

EG: So, so, so important. Support doesn’t end with remission as I learned in my cancer journey. If you had asked me when I was first diagnosed, I would have thought the day that I heard I was in remission would be the end. But it wasn’t.

Recovery’s extremely long. I was in treatment 26 months total, with 16 months of active treatment. That’s six months of chemo, 28 rounds of radiation, multiple surgeries including a double mastectomy, 14 months of targeted infusion. I had my ovaries removed to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, which kicked me into menopause in my mid-30s, which is a whole other podcast.

That support is really important. I think the policies are around flexibility, like flexible work. So many attorneys and HR leaders lean on FMLA for support and job protection, which is awesome. Not everyone has access to it. It’s dependent on where you live. It’s dependent on things like the size of your company, time in your role, how much disability is paid out so you can determine, can I take unpaid leave? Do I need to go back to work? 

FMLA is great. And we need policies that enable people to be in treatment and contribute meaningfully to work when and how they can. One idea is around redesigning roles and being open to that. Certainly that was my experience.

The job I had the day before I was diagnosed looked very different from the job I had at the end of my treatment. Because it had to. I was doing a very big job and I wasn’t able to contribute in the same ways to every single one of the departments I was managing at the time. It doesn’t mean less, it means different.

MC: As a subcategory of commit to long-term support, you suggest that companies should celebrate every milestone, big and small, because acknowledging achievements in both our personal and professional lives fosters a positive and supportive culture and reinforces our commitment to each other’s well being and success. It sounds like your company did that for you.

EG: They did. And I think it was a big part of every employee’s story at the time. The biggest thing I was doing in my life was fighting cancer and beating cancer. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I did it with many, many people. And the ability to celebrate those milestones was really monumental to me.

By opening up these celebrations—and being celebrated—with my colleagues recognized for their contributions to my eventual wellness, and my beating cancer. It celebrated not just me but it also celebrated their collective support and our collective resilience.

I look back at the celebrations with the people within the company while I was going through active treatment, and I think about almost every single one of them and how excited they were for me. It felt like their win, too. I’m really proud of how open I was and how I let them all into that celebration because that’s something they get to have. They will inevitably encounter other people who are diagnosed with cancer because, again, 50 percent of us will be diagnosed in our lifetimes.

I think about it as a gift to them, too, that they have this experience that they can take with them into their other relationships that are meaningful to them. 

MC: So the Erin Grau of 2017 meets the Erin Grau of 2024. Would she recognize her?

EG: She would recognize parts of her. I’ve always been impatient for change, and the through-line of my whole career, I think, is steering leaders and organizations toward the future.

The Erin Grau of 2024 is definitely braver. I’m willing to take bigger swings with this one wild, amazing, precious life I have. I never would have started a company in 2018. I feel really compelled to advocate for not only people going through a long-term health crisis, but for creating a better, more human future of work. I feel really called to do that in my professional life, and it’s really rewarding to be able to share my story, which gives it meaning.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re like, why me? Why me? And when my niece died, I thought, OK, why not me? My niece should have been all future, and she didn’t make it to her second birthday. So I feel personally really called to do this work. And I think it gives real meaning to the incredibly difficult 26 months I spent in treatment.

I can see the people I work with and the companies I work with making real change. If a startup can do this, certainly many of the companies out there can make these changes to support employees and make better workplaces for employees, particularly going through a health crisis. Ultimately, doesn’t that make a stronger business and a more successful business?

If you have employees that feel cared for, they’re going to care for your business.

MC: I imagine this has changed your attitude toward fear in a professional sense, because you have faced the biggest fear there is in a personal sense. I imagine if you’re thinking about a career change, you’re thinking, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ve already faced that. Is that a fair assessment?

EG: Yes, it’s true. I also feel an urgency around making things better for when my daughters enter the workforce. They are 7 and 9 now, and I want them to enter the workforce and feel supported and to not have to make choices, like do I keep my job in my career or go through treatment for something?

I want them to have everything. And so I feel fearless because of them, even more than because I faced the scariest thing.

But you’re right. It was the scariest thing. For me, when I faced cancer, I learned your legacy matters. The work that you do becomes even more important.

Every moment that you get after surviving needs to be used for something good and lasting. And for me, this feels like it.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

This AccelPro audio transcript has been edited and organized for clarity. This interview was recorded on February 22, 2024.

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