Compassion, flexibility and expert help are the key ingredients to helping employees cope with cancer, according to Fern Ngai, head of human resources at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong. The bank is one of the major employers in Hong Kong that has chosen to bring in experts from outside the company to provide support and advice for employees in times of difficulty, such as coping with a long-term illness like cancer. This help comes in the form of an employee assistance programme (EAP), operated by a company that specialises in such schemes. 'The core service of the programme is a telephone hotline, which operates 24/7, providing English, Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking support for all staff, their spouses and their children,' Ms Ngai said. 'It's there for employees to use when they want advice on any issues, not just illness related ones. And it's done on a confidential basis, so we don't know about it. Depending on the situation, our staff may also request a face-to-face consultation.' According to a survey of companies in Britain, by the publication Employment Review, about one in five employers operate EAPs, which made their debut in the workplace in the 1940s in the United States. In those days, the programmes were there to help employers assist staff with alcohol-related problems, but over the years their use has expanded and they now cater for a broad spectrum of issues ranging from stress, financial difficulties, and family and relationship problems to long-term illnesses. Although only one in 10 employees use them, according to a survey published earlier this year by online magazine personneltoday.com, most employers find them worth the money.Ms Ngai said one of the main benefits of outsourcing this kind of programme was the resources which the specialised EAP providers had at their disposal. 'Outsourcing to experts means it can be done better than we could do it ourselves. On the counselling side, the provider has psychologists and a wide network of people who can provide support to our staff. It works quite well.' The EAP is just one aspect that Standard Chartered Bank has in place to help employees who have cancer. Others include a quality medical insurance plan and benefits which, Ms Ngai said, were over and above those required by employment law, which stipulates up to 120 days of paid sick leave a year. 'Some of the benefits don't apply until you have been with us a required time. For example after a year, all permanent full-time staff will be entitled to 120 [paid sick leave] days in any one calendar year,' she said. 'After four years of service the entitlement increases by another 30 days to 150 calendar days on full pay and then after five years you're entitled to 180 days on full pay and an additional sick leave benefit on half pay of up to 90 days.' Ms Ngai said being flexible and able to evaluate each case on an individual basis, and stepping in with extra help when needed were also important in helping those with long-term illnesses. 'If the person is away from work for a long time and finds that the medical insurance does not cover [the costs] 100 per cent, then we talk to them, and in some cases we have provided over and above what the basic insurance provides. 'We do try to be compassionate because we know it is a difficult time for staff and their families. 'We always try to learn what the family situation is at home and engage the staff and get an update from the family from time to time so we can stay in touch with what is happening,' she said. 'If it is the spouse of a member of staff who is ill we do the same thing, continually engaging the staff to see how their spouse is doing. It is important to provide that kind of moral support. It can be a stressful time.'