- Communication is key: Talk to your employee to find out about their condition and what you can do to help them in the workplace. Maintain reasonable contact levels to demonstrate support.
- Employment law must inform policies and processes: The Equality Act 2010 defines some long-term physical and mental health conditions, such as cancer, as disabilities, giving employees protection against discrimination and the right to request reasonable accommodations.
- Additional support can make a significant difference: Going beyond legal requirements when managing long-term employee illness can help reduce the physical, emotional and financial hardships employees face.
Approximately 26 million people in the UK live with a long-term condition (LTC) and 10 million individuals live with two or more. And according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, the number of working-age adults out of employment due to long-term sickness has been rising since 2019 and currently sits at around 2.5 million people.
The phrase ‘long-term conditions’ covers many types of illness, including asthma, depression, endometriosis, HIV and cancer. For employees with these conditions, it can be difficult to navigate employment while dealing with symptoms and undergoing treatment. As an employer, it can be hard to know how to handle employee illness and best support them.
If an employee has been diagnosed with cancer, or they’ve told you about another LTC, it’s important to handle the situation appropriately. In this guide, we outline steps and appropriate actions for managing long-term employee illness.
Be professional, yet compassionate
Knowing how to talk to an employee who has cancer or any other long-term illness isn’t always easy. Protecting the business, its operations and revenue is important, as is showing compassion toward the employee. Having a long-term illness can create significant physical, emotional and financial hardships. Keeping this in mind will help you support the employee more effectively and approach conversations with professionalism and empathy.
Understand the employee’s situation
Asking an employee about their health must be handled carefully to keep within the law. Begin by having a private and confidential conversation with the employee. This will help you to understand the nature of their illness, its impact on their ability to work and any accommodations they might need. You can also request relevant medical documentation from the employee, such as a fit note or doctor’s report, to better comprehend the extent of their illness and any work limitations, or if the information is needed to process Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
Review company sickness policies and employee contract
Employers need to make sure that they have an effective, up-to-date sickness policy in place. From a business perspective, this will not only reduce legal risk, but will also ensure your approach to managing long-term employee illness is consistent and efficient. For employees, it will provide them with clear information about their entitlement and the expectations of both sides. In addition, review the specifics of the employee’s contract to make sure you are aware of any terms relating to absence and long-term sick pay.
Uphold employment law
When managing long-term illness, employee rights and employment law must be upheld. For example, employers must pay Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to eligible employees who are too ill to work. This currently equates to £109.40 and is paid for up to 28 weeks.
The Equality Act 2010 also protects employees who have a physical or mental health condition that has a long-term negative impact on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day tasks. Cancer is one such condition that meets the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee who has cancer and must make reasonable adjustments to avoid putting them at a disadvantage compared to non-disabled staff. We have more information specific to employees with cancer in our guide to cancer and employment law.
Maintain open communication
Whether managing an employee off sick with cancer or a member of staff with depression, operating an open-door policy and keeping communication open is important. Employees need to feel that they can talk to their employer honestly about their condition, without fear of judgement or negative repercussions.
It’s also okay to touch base with employees, even if they are on sick leave, to check on their welfare, provide workplace updates and address any related matters, such as sick pay or occupational health assessments. However, the level of contact must be reasonable so it’s a good idea to agree on a frequency with your employee.
Assess and plan for the employee’s return to work
Where an employee has been on sick leave but is getting ready to return to work, it is necessary to create a structured return-to-work plan that outlines the transitional period, any accommodations and performance expectations. This should be done in consultation with the employee to ensure that both parties are clear about the objectives and timelines.
Implement reasonable adjustments
If the employee continues to work despite their long-term illness or they are returning to work after a period of absence, discuss potential reasonable accommodations that can help them manage their condition and do their job effectively. This could include flexible working hours, adjusted duties, more frequent breaks or assistive technologies.
Engage in continuous review
Regularly review the employee’s circumstances and any adjustments made to make sure that the support given is still appropriate and effective. Be prepared to make further accommodations if necessary, and adapt the plan based on the employee’s needs.
Offer additional support
Additional support could include connecting an employee undergoing chemotherapy with a professional who can give them tips for working with cancer or managing tiredness after cancer treatment, while connecting an employee with COPD with a pulmonary rehabilitation practitioner could help them implement exercises to deal with shortness of breath. Long-term employee illness can also have mental health implications. Therefore, offering access to mental health resources and support can make a significant difference to employees with chronic conditions.
Perci Health is here to help employees affected by cancer. Our virtual care clinic makes it easy for anyone to sign up for an account and speak to specialists and receive personalised advice based on their unique circumstances. If you’d like to find out more, you can book a demo to see how Perci Health works as an employee benefit provided by employers.
‘Half a million more people are out of the labour force because of long-term sickness’, ons.gov.uk, Aug 2023, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peoplenotinwork/economicinactivity/articles/halfamillionmorepeopleareoutofthelabourforcebecauseoflongtermsickness/2022-11-10
‘Making the case for the personalised approach’, england.nhs.uk, Aug 2023, https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/making-the-case-for-the-personalised-approach/
‘Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)’, gov.uk, Aug 2023, https://www.gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay
‘Disability Rights’, gov.uk, Aug 2023, https://www.gov.uk/rights-disabled-person/employment