Staywell » Blog » Supporting Employees to Work Through: Cancer

Supporting Employees to Work Through: Cancer

According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2013 alone, over 350,000 people were diagnosed with cancer. Estimates suggest that by end of the next decade there could be as many as 4 million of us coping with the disease.

While 10% of people within the 25 to 49 age group are likely to contract cancer, an ageing workforce along with the rising retirement ages means that more and more of us are likely to be affected while we are still at work.

MacMillan Support have estimated that 1 in 3 people who are living through cancer at the moment are of working age. Research also suggests that between 41% and 84% of people who have experienced cancer will, at some point, return to work. Many want to return to work because it contributes to financial independence, provides a sense of purpose, gives you identity and self-esteem, creates structure and order, is an important source of social interaction, and can be a lifeline back to normality, wellbeing and recovery.

This presents various challenges for businesses, not least in how to support employees, manage sickness and absence and help them work through this difficult time in their lives. According to a recent report by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, however:

“Research in the UK found that almost half (47%) of a sample of 1,740 UK adults living with cancer who informed their employer of their diagnosis did not have sick pay entitlement, or access to flexible working or workplace adjustments. The same survey also found that almost one in five people who returned to work after their diagnosis experienced a lack of understanding of their needs from their employer or colleagues.”

The Responsibilities of Employers

There’s no doubt that employers face a challenge when dealing with a long-term illness such as cancer. Under the Equalities Act, an employee who has cancer is categorised as having a disability and an employer is legally obliged to make the appropriate necessary adjustments to support a return to work. The legislation also covers employees with caring responsibilities, a fact often overlooked by employers. There is no fixed definition of “reasonable”; this will depend on the circumstances, including practicality, cost, and the extent to which an adjustment will be effective in alleviating any disability

Many line managers and HR departments do this in both large and small companies to one degree or another. There is plenty of merit in involving health and safety practitioners who will be able to assess work conditions better and keep your business on the right side of current legislation.

What are Necessary Adjustments?

Necessary adjustments can be difficult to understand and implement, particularly for smaller businesses. In a simple sense, it may involve giving time for appointments and or being more flexible on absenteeism, something which is usually the province of line managers. A workplace assessment, however, goes that step further to make sure that all the support required is and can be delivered. This could include:

  • Looking at how physically demanding the work is. This can affect different people in different ways – someone who is recovering from breast cancer and has returned to work may find even operating an office desk a tiring and physically demanding experience.
  • When it comes to long term illness, you cannot underestimate the impact of fatigue and how it can ebb and flow with the individual.
  • There are not just physical demands but psychological ones – loss of concentration and memory issues are not unusual for cancer sufferers who have been through chemotherapy or are on medication.
  • If a person is undertaking chemo, they may be at extra risk from infection.
  • If they’re travelling to work there are other issues and working from home can carry its own risks.
  • If an employee operates in a high-risk situation such as construction, a risk assessment will be needed when they return to work.

Assessing all aspects of the work environment and taking into account the individual and their illness can uncover a wide range of recommendations for making their lives easier. Examples might include ensuring they only operate on one floor and don’t have to climb up and down stairs, working to reduce stress by changing standard practices or certain tasks they used to perform, even something simple like letting employees take a break more often than others in the office.

Understanding the Impact of Cancer

There’s no doubt that emotions play a large part in any cancer diagnosis. It can affect people in a variety of ways and there are no written rules that can guide you through it. An employee may feel numb, frightened, angry or isolated because of their diagnosis.

If you’re their line manager, they may look to you for that additional support and reassurance their job is not under threat. The bottom line is that this will be an uncertain time and it can affect both the employee who has to deal with the illness and the employer/manager who has to help. Both sides often need the right support in place to help cope with the challenges ahead.

Fatigue is another issue that affects cancer sufferers and can impact in different ways. It can make certain jobs difficult to do where even the simplest tasks seem impossible. It will certainly influence concentration and may even cause physical symptoms such as dizziness which can be dangerous in certain work situations. Options such as flexible working and lighter duties can all help get through these moments.

Treatment for cancer can cause some obvious physical changes that can make it difficult for someone to return to work without the right support. This can include weight loss, scarring and hair loss after chemo. Some treatments for cancer can leave people dealing with the long-term consequences.

It’s not just employees who have been diagnosed with cancer that create challenges for employers. Those who have a relative suffering from disease will also have issues that need a support mechanism in place. Workplace absence can be an issue, especially if the person hasn’t told their line manage or the HR department that they are caring for someone with cancer.

Using Occupational Health

When an employee is coping with cancer, it can be beneficial to get an occupational health team involved. Not only will they be aware of the specific conditions and the medical background of the disease but they will also have an intimate knowledge of the roles and responsibility of the business and employer. They can help assess what reasonable adjustments need to be made and advise on return to work issues, as well as carry out fitness to work risk assessments and monitor the employee’s progress.

Cancer Support Resources For Employers

MacMillan: Work & Cancer resources for employers

Sickness Absence Management: An Employers Guide

Return to Work Guide




Recent Posts

What is an Occupational Health Assessment?

What is an Occupational Health Assessment?

One of the most common questions that we get from our clients on a regular basis is “what is an occupational health assessment?”  An occupational health assessment is generally used as a blanket term, often a vital part in sickness absence management or in situations where an employee’s health is affecting their work or there…

Find out more
Neurodiversity: A Guide for Employers

Neurodiversity: A Guide for Employers

Why is it important? At least 20% of the adult population have a diagnosed neurological condition such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and/or dyspraxia. Therefore, it is essential that employers are aware of how to support such employees in order to create a diverse, productive workforce which values everyone’s…

Find out more

Neurodiversity at work: How Occupational Health can help

There is no standard human brain, and every individual has their own areas of strength and areas where they have more difficulty.  This applies no more or no less to people who have diagnosis or traits of neurodiverse conditions.  There is increased worldwide awareness of neurodiversity compared to a few years ago, and people who…

Find out more