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A guide to cancer and employment law in the UK

Guide to cancer and employment law Perci Health

Key Takeaways

  • By law, cancer is considered a disability: The Equality Act 2010 covers cancer in England, Scotland, and Wales, and in Northern Ireland, it is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
  • Your employer must make reasonable adjustments: By law, you can negotiate adjustments to your role such as flexible working hours or periods of leave.
  • Legal protection continues after your treatment ends: You’ll have protection against discrimination even once your treatment ends. This protection continues if you move to another role or employer.

When you are dealing with cancer, it’s likely you’ll already be juggling a lot and processing many different emotions. The last thing you want is to worry about your job security as well. 

In the UK, you are protected by law against discrimination once you receive a cancer diagnosis. Here, we have put together a complete guide on what your rights are as an employee and what employers have to offer you.

What laws apply to cancer and employment?

The Disability Discrimination Act was originally brought into law in 1995 and deemed those with cancer to be classed as disabled and, therefore, protected against unfair treatment.

In 2010, The Equality Act replaced previous discrimination laws in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Equality Act applies to all people with cancer, regardless of the type of cancer they have, from the point of diagnosis. It also applies to those who have previously had cancer.

In Northern Ireland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is still applicable and protects those with cancer against discrimination.

These laws cover all areas of employment. This includes recruitment, employment terms and conditions, benefits, opportunities for promotion and training, and terminating your employment.

What are your rights at work when you have cancer?

By law, your employer should try to support you by making reasonable adjustments so that you can stay in work or return to work when you are ready to.

Reasonable adjustments encompass changes to your role, the workplace, equipment, or services provided, and the way things are done. These adjustments will differ from one individual to another and will also be dependent on each employer’s situation.

Before any adjustments are made, your employer will have to consider if they will remove or reduce the disadvantages you face because of your diagnosis or treatment, if they are practical to make, if they are affordable, or if they could harm the health and safety of others.

For example, they may be able to grant you flexible working hours so you can take time off for treatment, or following treatment, and they may give you a phased return to work.

There are many ways that you can check what rights you have at work. You can speak to your HR department and check your employer’s policies. You can also seek advice from the Equality Advisory & Support Service, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, or Macmillan, which partners with the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Can your role be terminated if you have cancer?

It’s understandable if you have concerns about whether an employer can sack you or make you redundant if you have cancer.

As mentioned above, the law states that employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that you can continue to work if you wish. However, there is no fixed definition of what reasonable adjustments are. This is because what your employers can reasonably do to accommodate your requests will depend on the size and structure of the company and your job role, cost implications, and the impact any changes have on other employees, amongst other things.

Although it’s unlikely, your employer might be able to legally dismiss you under certain circumstances. An example of such a situation might be if it’s not possible for you to work from home during treatment due to the nature of your role and there are also no alternative roles that would allow you to do this.

Do the laws apply if I’m going through treatment, have long-term cancer, or am in remission?

Legal protection against unfair treatment continues after you have received a diagnosis. The Equality Act 2010 and Disability Discrimination Act 1995 cover you through treatment and if you have long-term cancer. You remain protected even once you are in remission.

This means that you cannot be treated unfairly or be disadvantaged by your employer due to your cancer. So, they can’t use your diagnosis as a reason to move you to an easier or lower-paid job, unless you have requested this as part of your reasonable adjustments.

They cannot select you for redundancy due to your diagnosis or penalise you for taking time off sick, without considering your illness.

This protection continues, even if you change jobs. A prospective employer cannot reject your job application for cancer-related reasons nor can they ask you health-related questions unless these are to make reasonable adjustments.

What can you do if you experience discrimination?

If you feel you have been treated unfairly because you have cancer, there are several different ways you can handle the situation. Make sure you make a record of the discrimination and when it happened. Try to include as much detail as possible and keep copies of anything that supports your complaint such as emails and letters.

The first thing you can do is informally complain by speaking to the person involved, your employer or your workplace’s HR department. Be sure to add the dates and times of when you raised the issue, and who you spoke to about it, to your records.

There is also the option to lodge a formal grievance using your workplace procedures. If after this, you feel your matter has still not been adequately addressed, you may wish to take your complaint outside of your workplace. If you do need to take this action Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) is a good resrouce for helping with early conciliation on matters involving workplace discrimination.

If early conciliation does not work, you may then wish to progress your complaint by making a claim to an employment tribunal.

If you are going to talk to your employer about your diagnosis and the support you need from them, why not also ask them to take a look at Perci Health so that you can access virtual assistance and advice from leading cancer experts? 

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