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Season 1, Episode 4: Walk The Talk: Meaningful Work After Cancer

While more and more people are winning the fight against cancer, they are still having a hard time keeping their jobs or finding new work. Cancer survivors not only deserve a fair chance while applying for jobs but are also able to bring adaptability and perseverance to the workplace in addition to their normal qualifications. To ensure equal opportunities and change perceptions of cancer in the workplace, the social enterprise oPuce and a network of large companies in the Netherlands launched the Talent Connector, which empowers job seekers who have recovered from cancer by connecting them directly to dedicated recruiters.

In this episode we talk to Isabelle Lebrocquy, founder of oPuce as well as Laurence Maes, Lead Patient Engagement & Advocacy Benelux at Janssen, part of Johnson & Johnson, and Jeffrey van Meerkerk, Director Strategic Relations, Sustainability and CSR at ManpowerGroup. Both Johnson & Johnson and ManpowerGroup are signatories of the Work and Cancer Covenant and have been closely involved in setting up the Talent Connector.

–Hosts: Roberta Cucchiaro and Dominika Gałusa

This podcast is also available on the following platforms:


Full Transcript

Roberta Cucchiaro: Hi and welcome to our 4th episode of The Transform Talent Podcast! We are finally reaching the end of 2020 and we couldn’t be happier. What a year! And if you are listening to this episode in January already – Happy New Year! We all deserve a wonderful 2021, hopefully. So for this very special Holiday Broadcast we are bringing you such an important topic! When we heard about it from our colleagues at ManpowerGroup Netherlands, we had no doubts that we had to host an episode on this.

We are talking today about how we can help jobseekers who have recovered from cancer find the perfect job. That’s not something we talk about very often… Not at all, actually. We are talking about this because while more and more people are winning the fight against cancer, they are still having a really hard time keeping their jobs or finding new work altogether.

This is where oPuce comes in. oPuce is a social enterprise founded by Isabelle Lebrocquy who wants organizations to ensure equal opportunities and focus on talent, not on candidates’ illness history. Together with oPuce, a network of large companies, including ManpowerGroup and Johnson & Johnson who joins us today too, launched the Talent Connector and we want to hear all about it!

So today we have our very first panel on the Podcast and we are joined by:

  • Isabelle Lebrocquy, Founder of oPuce.
  • Laurence Maes, who is the Lead Patient Engagement & Advocacy for Janssen, part of Johnson & Johnson, she is also the chairman of the Business Network of oPuce.
  • Jeffrey van Meerkerk, Director of Strategic Relations, Sustainability and CSR at ManpowerGroup. Jeffrey is also on the Advisory Board of oPuce on behalf of ManpowerGroup.

Welcome all to the Podcast! So let’s start with you, Isabelle… What is oPuce exactly and how did you come up with the idea?

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I'm a cancer survivor and as you said before, I'm speaking for a growing group. And despite all the progress made in medical innovation, we still see a lot of burdens for cancer patients and survivors. Two in three patients live with or after cancer and I believe that we still focus too much on disease and not on the life after cancer.

In 2011, I got cancer and I lost my job. During cancer, I couldn't understand how this was possible and I decided to tackle this. So I decided to set up oPuce and I decided to see how can I tackle the problem that exists in the life and work after cancer. I couldn't understand it, and as I said “I couldn't find any numbers.” And as they say “no numbers, no problem.” So I decided to set up an online survey and I was amazed to see that 1000 respondents replied in 2 and a half months in 13,600 paragraphs. And what did I see? Was that 1 in 4 patients lose their job during or after cancer. We were really shocked, so I went to the Parliament and I showed them what I saw. And with Laurence, who is also here in this podcast, together with a member of the parliament we started to write a motion and this is in fact how everything started. We set up a plan of action for cancer and work. And we now even managed to get the right to be forgotten for cancer patients after 10 years so cancer survivors will be able to get an insurance after cancer.

What is oPuce? oPuce is no longer oPuce, oPuce is oPuce and oPuce’s Business Network, it's an ecosystem and in fact it's an ecosystem of 12 corporate employers and they help me in realizing the dreams I have in job retention and return to work. And in the beginning, I tried to do it myself, but I see now that in digitalizing the solutions I have been dreaming of, because it was a dream. By digitalizing the solutions, we see now that we really create impact. So we have now developed a solution for return to work and we will start with a serious game in job retention, but that’s for the next question.

Roberta Cucchiaro: I’ve seen those ads, very very powerful ads, with a powerful message where there’s a picture of you where you have a sticky note on your forehead that says that you are an ex-cancer patient. And I would really love to hear more about it. How it came about and if you are also planning on sharing it to drive the message?

Isabelle Lebrocquy: In fact what happened is: when I got cancer, what I discovered is there was not a lot about cancer survivorship. And I was really shocked, and I would like to invite everybody who is listening to this podcast: google “cancer survivor” and then click on images. You will see a lot of bold people with scarves. And when I see these images, I really think I am having a sticker on my forehead for life. I will be that cancer patients for life. So in fact what I wanted to do with that ad, it was my 1st ad that I ever did, was to show what it means to have a stigma. And I believe that we have to start to think differently about cancer. And that people have to take away the post-it on our foreheads and to take away that stigma. That's the message, in fact.

Dominika Gałusa: I wanted to ask Jeffrey and Laurence, how did ManpowerGroup and Johnson and Johnson get involved with oPuce? Isabelle briefly mentioned how it happened, but I'm curious to learn about more details.

Laurence Maes: Well, actually… I already knew Isabelle for quite some time. We met when I was still working at the Dutch Cancer Federation. At that point, she was already tackling the issue of people losing their jobs. So when I moved to Johnson and Johnson, we just kept in touch. And at that point, she was setting up a Business Network… a company network with large companies. And Isabelle said “small company can’t invest in people with cancer because it's a high risk. But large companies - they can.” So I took that message to my board, I discussed it with them and then I said “we’re an active company but we also have a responsibility. And let’s take that on.” So I noticed there was a huge commitment from my company and we took it from there and joined the company network.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: In fact what corporate employers do is they sign a covenant and that covenant covers: first of all, the companies promise that they will be an example on the job market, they don't look at the disease but at the talent. They promise to speak out the intention that they will do their utmost in job retention, so with their employees who get ill, they will do their utmost in keeping them in their jobs and they will do their utmost in not discriminating when hiring new people. So job retention and return to work… that's what the covenant is about.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: Exactly! And this is also the reason why when we were brought in contact with Isabelle by Annemieke Roobeek who is one of the leading business ladies in the Netherlands. She is a part of the advisory board of many international companies and she said to you that if you would like to make the bridge to employment… the bridge to work, you need to get in contact with ManpowerGroup. And so we had our first meeting and we discussed the importance of getting the new prospect on work. We, as ManpowerGroup, act from our purpose. We want to connect people with the dignity of work. And when it comes to this topic, we want to help people who survived cancer or faced cancer and want to keep their job in the organization. Well of course, ManpowerGroup is one of the organizations that really wants to play a role in this. And we have addressed this, or I have addressed this, with our board as well. Our previous CEO directly was very enthusiastic, and he called out that we as ManpowerGroup really want to make a difference as well.

Connecting people to work is our core activity and from that sense we want to strive towards more inclusivity, more diversity in the workplace. And we really want to make sure that people who have had to deal with the terrible situation of fighting a life-threatening illness… that they get the support they need to return back to work. And in combination with companies like Johnson and Johnson, Philips, Pon Holdings, Akzo Nobel, ABN AMRO, Deloitte Consulting of course… we managed to get the right spirit in place. What Laurence said of course is about innovation, but also about social innovation. How do we connect? How do we make sure that we get people from A to B, who otherwise would maybe never have an opportunity again because of the stigma? And together, we believe that we can be strong and we proved to be strong together. Each company from their own competencies’ expertise, and also contribution to the Business Network.

Laurence Maes: And I think maybe just to add one last thing; it is also about setting an example to other companies and inspiring other companies that this is a way you can look at sustainable employability.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: So what the employers also do in fact by signing the covenant is they do not only “sign a paper”… like a patient said not long ago to me. They also do things. So people from these companies work with oPuce in realizing these solutions, it's not only signing a paper, it's really doing. They walk the talk.

Roberta Cucchiaro: That's the most important part, which is making a difference. Right? So as we are talking about cancer patients, more and more people are living after cancer and this group of people is growing rapidly due to the medical developments. And it's also thanks to these medical developments, that these people are able to return to their previous lives as normal… as it was before. So why is it challenging to find a job after cancer? And do you see this as a problem affecting the younger generations as well?

Isabelle Lebrocquy: Well, in fact - and I’ve already talked about the stigma - is that before, when I would have had my cancer in the 80's, my survival rate was much lower but what we have now is 1 in 3 people have a chronic form of cancer and 1 in 3 people is cured. It is incredible that we can say that 2 in 3 people live after cancer and it's a growing group. Not only because of medical innovation, but also because of early screening and better screening. So yes, you see more and more young people. You see a lot of women because of breast cancer, it's a big group. And in the Netherlands, it's a specific problem because of social legislation, because an employer has to pay you for 2 years… has to pay 70 percent of the salary of a sick employee the first 2 years when he gets ill. So in the Netherlands, employers see this as a risk. And in other countries too… because I'm now part of the patient advocacy working group for ESO, European Society of Oncologist, where I am representing cancer survivorship, it's my subject… In fact you see that in every country, because of the way society and employers look at patients and survivors. So there is still an enormous stigma, and enormous fear, people are scared about the word “cancer”. So even in countries where social legislation is less discriminatory, it is still an incredible challenge to keep people in their job and to get a job after cancer. So it's not only a Dutch problem, it's a problem everywhere and it's because of the fact that cancer changed, it becomes more and more a chronic illness or an illness from which you get cured and that's a step society still has to make in how we look at cancer. And of course change starts with language, so there's a life after cancer. And I think that's the message we should try to get out. There is a life after cancer and in that life after cancer there is also a job, and that's a normal job, with normal insurances and everything.

Dominika Gałusa: As we're talking about jobs, I also know that you’ve recently launched the Talent Connector and it's bringing job seekers who have recovered from cancer in contact with recruiters from employers who have indicated that they are open to this group of applicants.  So could you tell us a bit more about the Talent Connector and how does it work?

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I will explain what was my dream about this, and then I will ask Laurence and Jeffrey to also explain because they were in the working group and in the steering group with which we developed it. In fact, my dream was: can we develop a sort of matching app, where we survivors can get in touch with the recruiters… dedicated recruiters of the employers of the Business Network. So I had a sort of idea; can’t we do something which is where you swipe… where we have so many companies that you swipe on and you can look. So I would invite every company who listens to us, join us. We have now developed a digital platform for work and cancer, we have developed the Talent Connector that is a digital tool for the return to work. We are going to develop a serious game; one for employees and one for the employers in job retention.

But in fact, I would say join us in creating impact. So my dream was a very easy way to make the impossible possible and to create jobs for unemployed cancer survivors. I would like to ask Jeffrey and Laurence… we developed this together, so could you also explain a bit why you did it and how you did it?  Because we did that with a big group of people. 20 - 30 people have helped in developing this. And don't forget Deloitte and the Deloitte Impact Foundation. They have given us enormous time in developing the tool.

Laurence Maes: Yes, and maybe I can indeed tell something Isabelle, about why this is such an important topic. Because on the one hand, we as an employer we have people who have cancer, we can do a lot to support them but it's a lot harder to hire new people who have a background with cancer.  Because they often have gaps in their resume and it's not just a feeling, they probably are often discriminated when they try to find jobs. So by signing the covenant, we said we're not going to discriminate, but we also have a responsibility to lower the hurdles people experience. So with this Talent Connector, people can get in touch with recruiters of all the companies that have joined the company network directly. They can upload their resume and they can see.  And it's not like we're creating jobs for them, but we're trying to match their resume with existing jobs offers we have… but we know that these people have a background in cancer, and as I said we’re not going to discriminate. So we're trying to give them just the extra push to apply for the jobs we have.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: Maybe to add to that, because what Laurence said is absolutely true, the companies that joined the Business Network, all committed to being open for job applicants that have a background which cancer is part of. But we also helped the dedicated recruiters that support the Talent Connector on the backend with how they should treat of course people that have a background in cancer. So we have educated them on what questions to ask and what questions to maybe not ask or how to make it easier for applicants to share their story in a natural way, so that people feel at least welcomed when they apply for a position at each of the company's part of the Business Network.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: But the nice thing about the Talent Connector is the dedicated recruiter, and of course me too. We get a sort of message that says this is a Talent Connector contact, and then we know already that they have contacted us through the Talent Connector. And what the nice thing is; what I hear from the unemployed cancer survivors, they say this is great. And I even had a girl who was crying on the phone because she said: “I don't have to talk about my cancer anymore, I can now have a very normal job interview”, and that is in fact what we also wanted to do. So we informed the recruiters, they know this is a cancer survivor, and they never have to talk about it anymore. It's tackled, they just have the interview… we look at their talents and not at their disease in fact.

Roberta Cucchiaro: We have read that in the Talent Connector there are also tools and e-learning modules from employment agencies, patient organizations and reintegration companies to help candidates. It would be great to learn more how ManpowerGroup and Johnson & Johnson have been involved.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: What I saw at ManpowerGroup is that they had a lot of e-learnings on how to set up a resume, how to make a plan of action, how to make a video interview, how to make a LinkedIn profile. So I contacted Jeffrey, and I asked him: “would you be OK to give us for free on the platform, so that we can put it on the platform for free, e-learnings, like how to set up a LinkedIn profile? How should I prepare myself for video interview? What is my digital knowledge? What is my personality?” And so we get also assessments and Jeffrey organized, and I will let you, Jeffrey, add information about it. But I asked Jeffrey, would you be willing to share it, and they did. This is in fact what we did, other patients associations also gave information, and everything is free. So cancer patients do not pay for any tool that is on the platform.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: What can I say more Isabelle, you’ve highlighted it very strongly. But exactly this is what we did and of course ManpowerGroup supports people getting into new employment opportunities. And that's our core activity, so the supporting tools that we have developed from a traditional process point view, we made them ready to be integrated into Talent Connector tools. So indeed we help cancer survivors with developing a good LinkedIn profile; for future employers, what interview techniques can be used? How to learn more about the strengths that they now have, and when beating the disease of cancer, etc. etc… ManpowerGroup of course invested a lot in MyPath and the other initiatives, e-learning, etc… We have made links to that environment as well. So that is our in kind support that we gave to the oPuce Business Network and their Talent Connector. But personally I think it is very, very powerful, and Laurence can speak much more about this: the support Johnson and Johnson gave to this initiative in creating the personas, the details behind it, leveraging the research, the knowledge that they as a company have in also developing this Talent Connector tool.

Laurence Maes: And I think that's actually the strength of the Business Network. We have so many different companies, with different assets they have that they can all bring into this, because we all said; “let’s tackle this together.” So we bring in network, we bring in background, knowledge and expertise and we all joined in together in this initiative. And that makes this really beautiful, I mean we started from scratch, now it's actually really this giant ice-ball that's rolling and going really fast. And I think that's very beautiful to see that the people that are in this business network from the different companies, they're also all personally very motivated to make this work together.

Dominika Gałusa: So if our listeners would like to get involved, how can they do that?

Laurence Maes: I would say if any company who listens, and I mean of course at this point, the Business Network is situated in the Netherlands. So especially companies in the Netherlands, they can reach out to Isabelle, they can go to the Talent Connector, I think all the contact details are there but I know Isabelle also has a dream of expanding to other countries, so I don't think you want to limit it to companies in the Netherlands.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: In fact I've been contacted by Slovenia, and they asked me: “how could we do that?” and in fact what I said to them is being a patient association, and get your data, proof what you hear. Make sure that you have big data research, that's also what we have initiated out of the Business Network. So not only digital solutions, but also 3 scientific Big Data Researches, so get the data, set up an ecosystem. This was Annemieke Roobeek who inspired me to set up a Business Network. We always talk about sharing economy and ecosystem. This, is really the result of an ecosystem, we don't think about competition. Everybody is equal and we think about impact, and in fact I would like to invite everybody: Walk the talk, if you think about CSR, look for initiatives where you really can make a difference. And try to copy what we do, contact us. If we cannot come to your country, contact us and ask us: “how did you do it?” So get your data, set up an ecosystem, find the partner, look at our Talent Connector.

Look at the companies who are on the Talent Connector, maybe they are willing, like ManpowerGroup, Johnson and Johnson, Deloitte, Philips, maybe they are willing to create the same in your country and in fact that is my dream. My dream is about impact, it's about not looking at the disease but looking at the talent. It's about changing the way society looks at cancer, and taking away the stigma. Look at the talent, and don’t look at the disease.

Dominika Gałusa: You're talking about society and companies, but you also briefly mentioned at the beginning that you did some work at the political level. So I'm curious to learn more about it.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I was a bit amazed that in this digital era where you see data everywhere, that there is still so much to be done in survivorship. So as I said, I lost my job, I lost it via a text on my phone, and it's shocking… It's shocking when you don't even know if you're going to survive, that you lose your job that you have to think about how am I going to do it financially. When I discovered that you could lose your job, I already talked before about the survey I did and how amazed I was to get 1000 respondents in thousands of pages of information. And then I saw that 1 in 4 lost their job, during or after cancer. Well, I decided to tackle it, and I had already contact with 1 member of Parliament, I contacted her, I showed her the papers and she said; “yeah, we have to tackle this.”

But it's not only a Dutch subject, it's a subject that I've been putting on the governmental agenda and on the political agenda in Europe. There is a life after cancer and at this moment that life is not always normal. We can’t get insurance; this group loses their job because of cancer. There's a lot of corporisation, there’s a lot of long term unemployment. And that's why in fact I started to lobby, because I wanted to be an example, I wanted to show them that there is a life after cancer. Look at me, I'm here and I deserve a normal life. And I was lucky to find a member of the Dutch Parliament who endorsed it, and then little by little we went on and brought it to the European level. And if you ask me now what is my dream, it is to get the right to be forgotten everywhere in Europe, to get equal access to drugs in Europe. So everybody gets to the same chances to get the same treatment everywhere in Europe, the same medical care in Europe and at a certain stage that we all are at the same level in treatments, and in survivorship.

Roberta Cucchiaro: Like you said, it's a global issue. So it's even crazy thinking about it that when you are having to fight for your life, you even need to fight for your job and at the end of the day you cannot really survive without paid work. So it really makes you think, and it's really empowering and wonderful to hear what you have been doing. So I would love to hear what's on the road map, where are you planning to expand, and what are your priorities as well?

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I always say what I do, it's not about me, it's about us. And I don't do this alone, I do this with great people like Laurence and Jeffrey, I can’t do this alone. What is on the roadmap is… In fact, what I develop is tools I would have loved to have when I got cancer. And the solutions I'm trying to find are the solutions I would love to have for myself too. So what is on the road map now is just as I said: politically, to have a right to be gotten everywhere in Europe, equal treatment. Maybe Laurence can say a bit more about that later on. And especially next year, what we are going to develop is a serious game in job retention. One for the employees and one for employers, and then to build out the platform for work and cancer, and to be an example for employers, for our society, but also for other countries. I heard from Laurence that in Belgium they are now starting to look at what we are doing, and they're starting to develop the same kind of solutions. So to inspire people and to inspire employers and inspire other countries and other continents, just copy what we do.

Laurence Maes: I think we can’t forget that it's not something… if you look at the change in cancer, how many people survive and live with cancer or after cancer, I mean we need to find solutions for those people to continue to participate, to continue to have a meaningful life. And this is here to stay, so we have to make sure as a society, as companies together that we find solutions for people after cancer to continue to work, to live and to have good lives.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: And normal lives

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: And if you would ask me personally Roberta, looking at the collaboration we have amongst each other… so these great companies that will share knowledge, share technology, share insights, all based on shared values actually and that want to create meaningful employment for people who really deserve a better future. I see a lot of great opportunities also for companies to connect, even more strategically, invest together to really live the purpose, and to make sure that we create a brighter future for all by joining forces. And I think that's a great outlook for all of us, it would make me really proud if other forward looking companies and also government agencies, like UWV (Employee Insurance Agency) for example, in the Netherlands would also take the responsibility to support the initiative going to the next phase.

Roberta Cucchiaro: So just to conclude with a question to both Laurence and Jeffrey; if you could give a piece of advice to organizations, what would that be?

Laurence Maes: I think it all starts with the right intentions as a company, because there's no one size fits all solution for this but if your intentions are right, then you have to find a way: How can we make this work for our company, our business? What works for us.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: Exactly, you are so right. It's about the right intentions, but it's also about what you and your company can bring, which is connected to your core business activities. So you need to also do it from what I believe are your business capabilities. Bring them in, make sure that you share them with the wider group and that you don't look at competition but look at joint success. I think that's very important for all companies that would like to join.  Big or small, publicly traded or not.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: And what I also would like to stress is that cancer made us stronger, and I believe that especially in these times we are in now, that cancer survivors can be of great added value because we know how to deal with crisis, how to stay calm in challenging times, and I think that's really one of our talents in what is happening at this moment. So I would say, what I like in what is now happening, and in the business network, and in the empowerment and the support of the Business Network that I get is: they walk the talk. They don't set up a congress to talk about cancer and work, they do it. They helped me, and we do it together in developing solutions for job retention and return to work. So walk the talk, if you want to walk the talk, if you talk about CSR, this is to place to walk the talk.

Roberta Cucchiaro: Absolutely and just a final thought to conclude, and actually it's a quote from you, Jeffrey, that I read in an article which I found really inspiring, and it links to what Isabelle just said, that: “those are people for whom giving up was and is not an option.“ So on top of the normal qualifications, they bring something extra and that’s “adaptability and perseverance.” And we need so much of that right now. It just makes you think, and it's a wonderful conversation. I hope that all our listeners really also think differently about this. Just to conclude on a happy note, and if you've listened to the other episodes, you know what's coming. Since there are 3 of us, I would like to ask you to answer this quickly, the 1st thing that comes to mind in just a few seconds: if you were stuck on an island and you could only bring 3 things with you, what would these things be? Isabelle first!!

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I would like Jeffrey to answer first, so that I have more time to think.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: Oh, Ok!! Well of course, I would like to bring my partner, that's one! I would like to bring my TV because I love TV, especially after doing a long day of work. And I would like to bring a nice bottle of Gin & Tonic.

Laurence Maes: That's inspiring Jeffrey, I was already thinking not the TV, but definitely my iPhone, and of course if I could take my loved ones with me, I would definitely do so. But as you said “things” I thought, you know, let's focus on the tangible things. So definitely something nice to drink, and maybe some good books to enjoy and relax on the island.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I think I would take 2 or 3 things, I would take my cats and then I would take a big boat, so that we’ll go back, and a lot of gasoline, so that we don’t have a shortage of energy to get to where we have to get back.

Roberta Cucchiaro: This is the 1st time that someone said “boat,” and you are absolutely right. If you can bring a boat, you can get out of there, no one has ever thought about that.

Jeffrey van Meerkerk: This is the perseverance, which I referred to in the article.

Roberta Cucchiaro: Exactly, you see.

Isabelle Lebrocquy: I needed some time to think; how can I get out of this island? This was my survival spirit.

Roberta Cucchiaro: That’s perfect, that’s the best answer we have had so far. And I'm going to steal that if someone ask me that.

Thank you all so much, it's been really great, and thank you also everyone who's tuning in. If you would like to know more about oPuce, we are going to add all of the links in the description of the podcast, as well as Isabelle's contact details so you can reach out.

Don't forget to like, subscribe, follow us, and have a wonderful holiday and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, and a wonderful Happy New Year as we get into 2021, finally!

Related Resource: ManpowerGroup 2020 Social Impact Report