Supporting employees with cancer – the moral, legal and business case

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No one should have to face cancer alone, but one in five sufferers may go through treatment and recovery on their own. As the number of people who live through cancer increases, supporting survivors and carers will become an ever more important workplace issue.

Every year almost 120,000 people of working age in the UK are diagnosed with cancer and an additional half a million care for someone with cancer while juggling work. As survival rates improve and the number of people living with cancer grows, cancer is increasingly a workplace issue.

While return-to-work rates of up to 84% have been reported for people with some cancers, according to research by King’s College London published in 2010, there are still far too many people who are either unable to work due to lack of support or who experience issues – such as discrimination – even if they are able to return.

Macmillan Cancer Support believes that no one should face cancer alone, but we know that up to one in five people may go through treatment and recovery on their own. Employers can play a vital role in supporting employees and Macmillan can offer guidance on how to do this.

Skilled people are an asset to businesses and we know appropriate management and support for people with cancer in the workplace is not only hugely positive for anyone living with the disease but it can also be good for employee engagement and can contribute to lifting staff morale. Every five years an estimated £5.3bn in productivity is lost in the UK as a result of people with cancer not returning to work. Helping someone with cancer to stay in employment saves time and money by avoiding the need to recruit their replacement.

By law
As well as making business sense and being the right thing to do, it is an employer’s legal duty to support employees with cancer. The Equality Act (Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland) protects anyone who has a disability from unfair treatment or discrimination at work. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, they are automatically classified as disabled for the purposes of legislation. This protection continues even when there is no longer any evidence of cancer.

The legislation requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to support people with disabilities such as cancer. Many adjustments, such as offering flexible working hours or permitting an employee to work from home, often cost nothing. For those adjustment that do come with a cost, such as purchasing special equipment or setting up awareness training for colleagues, employees with cancer can apply for government Access to Work funding.

Providing support can be easier than many employers or managers may realise, but it is vital to remember that everyone with cancer is different. Cancer and its treatment affect people in a variety of ways and no two employees are the same.

Common problems include fatigue, pain, reduced freedom of movement and depression, as well as practical issues such as the need to take time off work for treatment or check-ups.

Line managers play a crucial role in supporting people with cancer at work as they will know an employee’s needs and wishes better than most others in an organisation. However, current research shows over a quarter of line managers don’t feel equipped to support employees affected by the disease.

Macmillan has developed a list of top tips for line managers to consider if one of their employees has cancer. This includes checking existing organisational guidelines, how to respect privacy and considering flexible working arrangements.

But the true expert in how best to support an employee with cancer is usually the employee himself or herself. If they have particularly complex needs, it may be appropriate to ask for their permission to speak to their healthcare team, but in most cases they will have the clearest idea of what they need in order to continue in their role.


The life of others
It’s not just employees with cancer who employers must consider, but those caring for people with cancer too. Working carers have legal rights, which aim to help them stay in work. These include the right to request flexible working, to have time off during an emergency and protection against discrimination.

Caring responsibilities may also cause absences. Being a carer can have an impact both physically and emotionally, which can affect the carer’s ability to work. They may find it difficult to concentrate or feel tired from lack of sleep. Being a carer can also make existing health problems worse, such as high blood pressure or back problems.

As soon as employers become aware of someone’s caring responsibilities, it is best to talk with them about the organisation’s policies, their rights as a carer and their options for leave.

Macmillan Cancer Support recognises that employers play an important role in supporting people living with cancer and their carers and have developed a unique solution to support them.

Macmillan at Work is an innovative new programme for employers, including line managers, HR professionals and wellbeing staff, to help them prepare for the impact of cancer in the workplace. It provides expert training, consultancy options, and resources to help employers to become more capable and confident in supporting employees. The programme is there to help employers understand:

  • Cancer treatment, its side effects and the impact on a person’s work
  • The Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act
  • Talking about cancer
  • Supporting carers’ needs
  • Making workplace adjustments
  • Managing bereavement and end of life
  • Real-life employer case studies.

By joining (for free) employers receive:

  • The essential work and cancer toolkit – a comprehensive resource which provides guidance and practical tips for you and your employees
  • Access to free e-learning modules for line managers, occupational health professionals and union reps
  • Regular updates and information about work and cancer and other long term health conditions by newsletter.

There are also opportunities to book consultancy, face-to-face in-house training, workshops and bespoke sessions for line managers, HR professionals, occupational health and wellbeing managers.

It is vital employers are prepared to support employees suffering from cancer and their carers.

Liz Egan is the working through cancer programme lead at Macmillan Cancer Support



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