Managing cancer in the workplace

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There are currently more than three-quarters of a million people of working age living with cancer and a further half a million caring for someone with the disease while also juggling work. As the number of people living with cancer is set to double from two to four million by 2030, cancer is no longer just a healthcare issue, but a significant concern in the workplace.

We know that work is important to many people living with cancer. A job can provide normality, routine, stability, social contact and income. Not only that, but for people with ill health or disability, remaining in or returning to work can actually help to promote recovery, and may of course reduce the financial impact of cancer.

But employers or line managers may not always feel confident about how best to support their employees with cancer. There are challenges at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, when returning to work and afterwards.

The Macmillan at Work programme provides employers, HR and line managers with information and advice to help staff affected by cancer, such as making work adjustments or supporting carers, as well as specialist training on managing cancer in the workplace.

We’ve developed a list of top ten tips for line managers to consider if one of their employees has cancer:

  1. Be sensitive. Every person has a different cancer experience. Cancer treatments, and physical and emotional reactions to cancer, will vary from person to person. What may be best for one employee may not suit another.
  2. Make time to understand your employee’s individual needs. Respect your employee’s right to privacy. If they want others in the organisation to know that they have cancer, ask them how they’d prefer this to be communicated. Check whether or not they’d like you to keep in touch if they are off work for a while and decide together on the best way to do this.
  3. Listen, understand and ask. Listen to your employee without judgement and try to understand their situation. It’s fine to ask questions when they are sharing information with you.
  4. Check guidelines and policies. Does your organisation have any guidelines and policies to provide support to affected employees? These may cover sickness absence, long-term conditions, time off work and occupational health policies.
  5. Be prepared to make adjustments. Cancer is legally defined as a disability so you may need to make reasonable adjustments, just as you would with any other disability. These are changes to the workplace or working arrangements that allow someone with a disability to work.
  6. Recognise the impact on your team. Be aware of the impact that an employee’s cancer diagnosis can have on the wider team, the rest of your colleagues and, of course, on you.
  7. Check financial entitlements. Find out whether your organisation has policies for giving financial support to those off work, including occupational sickness pay. You may also want to check if there are any further benefits that could help your employee.
  8. Respect carers’ rights at work. Keep in mind that employees who are caring for a person affected by cancer may need your support too. Be aware that the information here also applies to carers.
  9. Discuss a return-to-work plan. If your employee needs to take time off work, talk with them about a return-to-work plan. This will help to identify any further support that might be needed before, during and after cancer treatment. This may include a phased return to work or gradually handing over work. You could also consider flexible options for working hours to support your employee’s well-being.
  10. Don’t forget, Macmillan is here to help. Don’t forget that Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help everyone affected by cancer, including family, friends, carers and employers.

The way an organisation responds to the needs of employees affected by cancer or other critical illnesses will have a huge impact, both on employee morale and employee engagement. Although we know most people do want to work after cancer, some will not. Everyone’s experience of cancer is unique and organisations need to tailor the support to meet the needs of the individual whilst balancing the needs of the organisation.



# Heather Cartledge 2014-11-13 12:28
Thank you for this article, I believe that it is so important to support people well who wish to continue with work as our jobs or roles can shape our identity and self esteem so much. I would recommend one-page profiles to help people express to their managers what is really important to them at the time and how best they can be supported. As it's written down, it is a good reminder for a manager and can also be updated as the person learns what works and doesn't work for them.
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