A Fortune 500 company hired me to help them be more family-friendly. Then my own kid got cancer.

Humanity needs to return to corporate America, for the sake of both employees and employers.
Businesswoman leaving office with box of personal items
There are countless employees who face devastating medical situations that do not necessitate their leaving the work force.RUNSTUDIO / Getty Images
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By Jennifer Spangenthal

Americans are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity for growth and transformation.

While many areas of our personal and professional lives have evolved to become more humane, corporate America yet has yet to take notice: Humanity needs to return to corporate America.

Employers must understand the fundamental role they play in all aspects of their employees’ lives, and the value that individual employees add to a company aside from acting as replacement units. It is not enough to simply discuss workforce flexibility and family-friendly practices in the workplace; these ideals need to be lived on a daily basis, and even the best of companies can strive to do better.

On the one hand, employees are searching for environments where they are valued as humans with unique qualities and skills to offer. Employment is perceived as a relationship, involving give and take on both sides of the equation.

This approach, however, is not often shared by employers, and too many companies continue to treat employees as numbers rather than individuals. Workers are regarded as faceless entities, rather than human beings with personal attributes, lives and needs — even though those personal attributes, lives and needs often contribute to making them better employees.

My experience is a case in point.

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I started my career in human resources because I was intellectually interested in how to improve the lives of a company's employees on a day-to-day basis. But after I chose to start a family, what had been an intellectual interest became a more practical one: I longed for a job that would enable me to seamlessly weave work and family together, yet I quickly learned how elusive that was in corporate America.

After accepting a job at Unilever, I thought I might have found the role that would help me achieve this elusive work-life balance, given their renown for family-friendly work policies.

But two and a half years after joining the company, I heard the four words that threw my life into a complete tailspin: “Your child has cancer.”

From that point forward, I lived and breathed cancer. Gone were the days of spontaneous fun activities and, in their place, entered an endless cycle of blood draws, chemo treatments, doctor visits, scans, and frightening medical terminology that I was expected to understand. As weeks turned into months, I slowly eased into a routine which made it possible to live.

Per the company’s family leave policy, I was initially approved for a short leave of absence and when it became clear that returning full-time would be impossible for the foreseeable future, I contacted my manager. I was hopeful we could create a flexible or part-time work arrangement through the duration of my daughter’s treatment. Instead, I was met with an ultimatum: Return to work full time, or resign my position when my leave of absence ended.

I was blindsided by the decision. If a successful, global organization like Unilever could not devise a temporary work solution for fear of disrupting employee production in the human resources department, how could any other company in the U.S. hope to respond to a similar situation?

The ultimatum was devastating; when all else had fallen apart, I had hoped that my career could remain the one stable element in an otherwise chaotic life, especially given how hard I'd worked to help the company be more "family-friendly." But my decision to accept their ultimatum was easy; the health of my children has always been my top priority.

Since then, I have learned that my experience is by no means an isolated one. There are countless employees who face devastating medical situations that do not necessitate their leaving the work force. But being forced out of the workforce rather than being accommodated within it is a rather pervasive trend throughout America today. I have met countless families over the course of my daughter’s treatment who’ve shared similar devastating stories. They, too, have lost wages, jobs and medical benefits as a result of taking care of a loved one, and many are unable to recover professionally or financially.

A company’s culture, though, which is the heart and soul of an organization and heavily influenced by its leadership, can dictate how these employees are treated. When founded on ideals such as compassion and empathy, employees learn to treat others with kindness and respect, and in turn reciprocate with a sense of loyalty and community within the organization. Utilizing this type of culture will signify an employer’s commitment to the well-being and success of its employees, and in turn should create a culture that embraces flexibility and support during times of challenge or crisis, a time when it’s often needed the most.

Few organizations today have been successful in creating truly flexible and compassionate work cultures. Even a company like Google — world-renowned for this ideal — can learn to do better. When our daughter was initially diagnosed, Google’s support for my husband as an employee was exceptional. Coworkers were allowed to donate personal vacation time, my husband was enabled to work remotely when necessary, and managers found ways to support non-standard working hours, all of which eased our burden during this difficult journey.

But it’s easy for companies to forget that childhood illness can be a marathon, rather than a sprint. As the months of our daughter's illness have turned into years, even Google has fallen into the trap of prioritizing policy over empathy. It has become increasingly difficult for my husband to balance his career with our daughter’s ongoing health concerns, and this has only highlighted for me the need for true change to be implemented more broadly.

I have never once doubted my decision to stand and fight side by side with my daughter while she battles cancer, even at the expense of my broader career. But I should never have been forced to choose in the first place.