Save 50% on your Social Media Week pass! Join leading brands and agencies in NYC this April 9–11 to learn about emerging trends, tools and strategies. Register now—savings expire Dec. 11.
When Kris Saim told his agency that he had stage four colon cancer, he was met with the stability that treatment had taken from him and the freedom to reroute his career.
“To just shift your career at the age of 50 is almost unheard of,” said Saim, who has pivoted from a client partner to an organizational development role defined by mentorship at full-service agency Gale. “Gale was better for me this past year than chemo was.”
But Saim knows this dynamic is rare, and he hopes the workplace support he has received from his agency can be a model for other employers to create safer spaces—especially when one in two people are diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
Saim’s transparency comes at a time of heightened conversation around working with cancer in the advertising space. Earlier this year, Publicis Groupe found that 92% of patients say workplace support positively impacts their health, but just 50% feel comfortable revealing their diagnosis to their boss in fear of losing their job.
The holding company’s Working With Cancer pledge, which launched at Davos earlier this year, covers job and salary security for at least a year, personalized career support, trained peer support and flexibility for caregivers. Inspired by the experience of Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun, Working With Cancer has signed up partners including Disney, Google, McDonald’s and Omnicom.
The accompanying campaign, which won a Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, translates the deep emotional toll that comes with hiding a diagnosis at work. It includes lines like, “More afraid to lose his job than his life.”
While the pledge is a much-needed step, Saim added that crafting the safest and most fulfilling work environment is both a personalized and ongoing conversation that people with cancer should not always be tasked to start.
“Somebody with cancer is a great person to start the conversation, but even an ally or a caregiver can do that,” he said. “With anything that falls under that DEI umbrella, increasing that sense of belonging is going to be a win for your organization.”
Saim’s diagnosis of stage four colon cancer with lung metastasis comes on the 10 year anniversary of his first diagnosis of stage three colon cancer at 38.
Beyond defying one of the potential scenarios those fighting a disease prepare for—”What will I do when I lose my job?”—Gale simplified his transition back to work. Instead of meeting Saim with mountains of paperwork, he is grateful for the agency’s ability to free him from additional stressors. Saim emphasized that unlimited sick time is an invaluable benefit, as a trip to the doctor should not be considered an earned vacation.
“I just definitely feel like the benefits at Gale truly allow me to go through the situation without a whole lot of like micromanagement or ownership on my part,” he said, adding that he is grateful for all the conversations that happened behind the scenes. “The benefits just do their job.”
Maintaining professional freedom
Saim wants to prove that a diagnosis does not negate the skillset an employee can bring to the workplace, or their desire to keep offering up that energy. He said a central component of addressing cancer diagnoses is offering employees the space to maintain their skills, and he wouldn’t necessarily call clocking a 40-hour workweek while going through chemo an unrealistic expectation.
After vice president of client services Leo Schnayer asked what he would ideally want to do, and Saim stressed that he wanted to remove roadblocks for incoming agency talent, he was struck by the “the sheer ease with which [Gale] made it happen.”
“Not only has this been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve done in my career,” he said, “but if it weren’t for the work that I’ve done this year, I don’t think I would have as positive of an outlook on my health as I currently do.”
He noted that cancer patients often approach their illness in two- to three-month timeframes that align with cyclical doctors appointments and procedures. During those breaks, he’s been able to reflect on “the goodness that has come as a result of this year.” While the ease Gale offered in this career pivot stands out to Saim, support from the agency also comes in the form of regular check-ins, which can start with a medical update and comfortably ease into more lighthearted conversation.
“I’ve really been able to focus my attention on what I’m leaving behind,” he said. “The conversation that always eats at my head is, ‘Have I done enough?’ and ‘Is there more that I can do?’ That’s really what’s driving me right now.”