Cancer at Work

We all know someone who has or had cancer.

For many people continuing work is an important part of their recovery and acts as an anchor when all the world goes mad around them.  I have dealt with lots of different personality types in the workplace, and the one thing that I remember clearly is that everyone has a different view on treatment options. Cancer at work is a complicated business.

Some want to go home and be with their family, even if this means losing pay and occasionally their jobs. The majority of others, want things “normal” as long as possible, or, if having treatments, continue working in some capacity; and although this is admirable, sometimes, it just isn’t practical.

Managers have to look at all aspects of the workplace and health and safety issues are top of their agenda.  With radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments the resulting fatigue is devastating.

This month (Nov 15) the Macmillan Cancer Support and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has issued guidance for supporting staff with cancer at work.

Statistics About Cancer at Work

  • More than 700,000 people (of working age) are living with cancer across the UK.
  • With survival rates improving and later retirements, many will continue to work after – or even during – their treatment for cancer.
  • Cancer accounts for almost a third (29%) of all long-term sickness claims paid in the past year according to data from Unum.

Key Issues highlighted by Macmillan and the TUC are:

  • Trust, honesty and confidentiality are vital for supporting workers with cancer.
  • Workers who disclose cancer must not be penalised, downgraded or even made redundant as a result.
  • Arrange for alternative or comparable employment, or suitable retraining if necessary.

The Law

Everyone with cancer automatically comes under the Equality Act. Employers need to make “reasonable” adjustments to jobs for them, which could include:

  • Allowing an employee time off to attend doctors’ appointments
  • Being more flexible with working hours
  • Giving extra breaks to help cope with tiredness
  • Work from home
  • A phased return to work after long-term sickness absence

The report also talks about the importance of keeping in touch with workers, although in my experience, some managers find it difficult coping with the enormity of cancer and default to ignoring the issue.  In this case, perhaps HR, a worker representative, another senior manager or occupational health (if you have a service) could help?

Return to work

A recent survey by Bupa revealed one in five workers felt pressured to go back to work immediately after concluding cancer treatment, with a third of those, wanting managers to be more aware by:

  • Having a policy for anyone with a long-term illness
  • Following advice from the employee’s GP or medical specialists
  • Allocating workers to other jobs and providing equipment to help

However, smaller organisations (SME’s)  struggle to adapt the workplace or even have time to try to rearrange things around a sick worker.  And the employee, understanding this, has to try to do their job with minor adaptations. If not, stay off sick longer, where thoughts of illness and lack of a work routine, make them feel worse.

SME Statistics

  • In 2014, there were 5.4 million businesses in the UK.
  • Over 99% of businesses are Small or Medium Sized businesses – employing 0-249 people
  • 1 million (95%) businesses were micro-businesses – employing 0-9 people. Micro-businesses accounted for 33% of employment and 18% of turnover

To see full numbers and more information from the House of Commons, Business Statistics (2014)

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady comments that: “People with cancer can experience much prejudice from both managers and colleagues and may hide aspects of their illness from bosses.”

Just so.  But in the SME’s, the problem is so much worse for managers who rely heavily on every single worker; which is where the “reasonableness” of the adaptations in the Equality Act comes into play.

For guidance on what is considered reasonable in law (Equality Act)

Just like people, business will have different approaches. I applaud this direction but with so many workplaces being SME’s and finding it difficult to make ends meet, without resources to spare, I wonder what their managers and cancer sufferers will be reading and doing?

Carry on the same I suppose…

Contact Macmillan

  • If you or your employees have questions about cancer, call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00 (Mon–Fri, 9am–8pm).
  • Alternatively, visit
  • Hard of hearing? Use textphone 0808 808 0121, or Text Relay.
  • Non-English speaker? Interpreters are available.

Further Reading:

Occupational Cancers: Guidance from the TUC
Employers Guide to Managing Cancer in the Workplace
What is Cancer (video);

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