- Navigating cancer is challenging: Awareness of the practical, physical and psychological impacts of cancer will help employers manage employee cancer in the workplace.
- Every employee is different: Guidelines are useful but your approach and the support you provide should be tailored to the needs of the individual.
- Communication is key: Being open and talking to your employee is the best way to aid understanding, demonstrate empathy and ensure you provide the right support.
A cancer diagnosis raises many questions, not just for the individual diagnosed, but for those around them, too. Employers often ask us questions to help them improve the support they can give to employees living with or beyond cancer, or caring for someone with cancer.
This article lists some of the most common employee cancer support FAQs we receive. In collaboration with Working With Cancer, we’ve answered them with honest advice and practical tips.
Why is cancer an important issue for employers?
Current figures state that 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and 36% of people diagnosed with cancer are of working age. This equates to a substantial number of individuals receiving a cancer diagnosis and navigating treatment while in employment. Around 87% of people who are employed when they receive their cancer diagnosis say it’s important to them to continue working, but for those that do require time off, it can take 12–24 months to successfully return to work due to the impact of cancer treatment. For these employees, understanding and support from their employer is vital in enabling them to carry on working and/or return to work. Therefore, it’s crucial that employers educate themselves on cancer and employer guidelines, and consider the impact of cancer when reviewing and implementing policies and procedures in the workplace.
What are the typical challenges employers face when managing work and cancer?
When an employee is diagnosed with cancer, employers find themselves in the position of wanting to support their employee and meet their needs while also being required to balance the needs and goals of the business. This can be challenging. Some of the common difficulties that employers encounter include:
- A lack of awareness of the psychological, physical, and practical impacts of cancer and its treatment
- Practical challenges in arranging cover and managing absence
- A lack of understanding of the legislation that protects people diagnosed with cancer
How will an employee with cancer be feeling?
Everyone deals with cancer differently, meaning feelings can vary widely between individuals or even for the same person day-to-day. Additionally, each stage of the cancer lifecycle – from diagnosis to treatment and the return to work – can bring different feelings. In general, someone with cancer might be experiencing physical symptoms including discomfort and fatigue, as well as psychological and emotional symptoms like distress, anger, sadness, anxiety and fear.
What should I say to an employee with cancer?
Knowing what to say when an employee has cancer isn’t always easy but letting them guide conversations is a good idea. This way, they can talk for as long as they need to and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. Employers should talk to employees privately, in a quiet space. Offer empathy, express support and ask how you can assist them. Create an environment in which the employee feels safe to show their emotions and don’t be afraid to express your feelings either. Avoid empty, overly positive phrases such as ‘You look so well’, and try not to offer stories about people you know who have had cancer. Instead, offer sincere sentiments such as, ‘I am sorry you are going through this’. Maintain open lines of communication, respecting their privacy and preferences.
What are my legal obligations when an employee has cancer?
The Equality Act 2010 is the main piece of legislation that employers in England, Scotland and Wales must abide by. Under this Act, cancer is considered a disability, meaning employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments so that an employee with cancer is not at a disadvantage. It also means that discrimination and victimisation due to their diagnosis are unlawful, even if their cancer has been successfully treated. In addition, the Equality Act protects cancer carers from discrimination due to their association with someone with cancer. Areas covered in the Act further include recruitment, references, terms, conditions and benefits, probation period, promotion and training opportunities, and the end of employment.
Employers also need to abide by laws relating to sick leave and statutory sick pay, time off for dependents and requests for flexible working. Furthermore, the Human Rights Act 1998 outlines requirements surrounding the confidentiality of employees’ medical information.
What should I tell my employee’s colleagues or other members of staff?
You should only ever share information about the employee with their consent, unless it is necessary, such as if payroll needs to calculate sick pay entitlement. Encourage an open and supportive work environment to foster understanding and empathy among colleagues.
What are the typical challenges employees face when managing work and cancer?
The challenges that an employee will have when managing work and cancer will be individual to them, however, some common experiences include:
- Having a lack of knowledge about the long-term impact of the side-effects of cancer and cancer treatment
- Finding it difficult to communicate changing needs and asking for support, particularly in the period after treatment
- Feeling guilty about colleagues covering their work during periods of absence and phased return
- Having a lack of understanding about their legal rights
- Experiencing the return to work is an extended process rather than a singular event
What impact does cancer treatment have that I need to be aware of to support an employee?
To help people return to or stay in work, it’s important to be aware of the impact that cancer can have on an individual. Cancer has physical, psychological and practical impacts on the person with cancer and the people who care for them, however, these impacts will be different for everyone. Cancer can have long-term implications that continue well after treatment and they won’t always be obvious to others around them. These include:
- Physical: cancer-related fatigue, treatment-related menopausal symptoms and changes to memory and concentration
- Psychological: fear of recurrence, anxiety and loss of confidence
- Practical: returning to work issues, issues with family, such as talking to children, and financial difficulties
Are there any employee benefits I should be providing?
Employee benefits are non-wage ‘extras’ that employers provide above and beyond their pay and mandatory benefits. As an employer, you do not have to offer any additional benefits, however, well-considered specialised benefits can make a significant difference to the lives of employees with, or affected by, cancer. For example, an Employee Assistance Programme can give employees access to mental health services such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. Digital cancer support enables employees to obtain tailored advice and guidance from experienced professionals online, when they need it most. When considering and implementing cancer support-related benefits, you should include caregiver benefits for employees, too, as it is not only those diagnosed with cancer that the disease affects; it can impact those caring for individuals with cancer as well.
What reasonable adjustments can I make for an employee with cancer?
Employers have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make ‘reasonable adjustments’. These adjustments are changes to remove or reduce the effect of an employee’s disability so they can do their job. Reasonable adjustments for an employee with cancer will be different for each individual but may include:
- Time off for medical appointments
- Adjusting duties, hours or targets
- Flexible working arrangements such as working from home, job shares or compressed hours
- Extra breaks
- Special equipment
How can I prepare for an employee’s return to work?
As an employee gets ready to return to work, you must create a plan for how this will happen. Meet with the employee or the individual affected by cancer a few weeks before their return-to-work date to put together a return-to-work plan. Encourage them to be as honest and realistic about their needs as possible. Discuss possible workplace adjustments, working hours and responsibilities, while providing reassurance and showing empathy. Review the plan together, and agree on what information will be shared with colleagues and by whom.
Once the employee has returned to work, review and adjust the plan routinely in collaboration with them, encouraging them to voice their changing needs and provide feedback. Even when not explicitly discussing the return-to-work plan, maintaining communication with the employee is key to them feeling they have your full support.
Perci Health is a platform that provides online expert support for people with and affected by cancer. Individuals can sign up for a Perci Health account to connect with leading experts and get on-demand online advice and guidance. Many employers are also already using our virtual care clinic to connect their employees with cancer specialists and make a difference in their lives. Get in touch if you’d like to know more about our cancer care employee benefits.
‘Cancer survival statistics for all cancers combined’, cancerresearchuk.org, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/survival/all-cancers-combined#heading-Zero, 1st Nov 2023
‘Under Pressure: The growing strain on cancer carers’, macmillan.org.uk, (https://www.macmillan.org.uk/_images/cancer-carers-in-the-uk_tcm9-298126.pdf, 1st Nov 2023
‘Macmillan Cancer Support: Working Through Cancer: Surveying experiences of cancer and work’, macmillan.org.uk, working-through-cancer_tcm9-341781.pdf (macmillan.org.uk), 1st Nov 2023