CancerThis article covers a sensitive subject: guidance for employers when dealing with employees affected by cancer. It provides an introduction to some of the issues involved and has been excerpted from the Bizezia publication detailed at the end of the article.

Each year more than a quarter of a million people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer.   It has been estimated that more than one in three people will get some form of cancer at some point in their lives and for each diagnosis there is a family and friends who will be affected by that diagnosis. It therefore makes sense for employers to understand the facts about cancer and have a published policy for supporting employees affected by it.

All employers are required to give an employee information on their statutory rights. They should also direct them to further sources of information and support outside the organisation, concerning relevant statutory benefits; discussing cancer with their colleagues; counselling and other specialist support organisations.

Individuals respond differently to being told they have cancer, and each prognosis will be different depending upon the type of cancer and its current progress. In one employee it may cause anxiety and depression and they may need time to come to terms with their diagnosis. For another employee, it may be seen as something that has to be endured until they can get back to their normal life. Attitudes to work will also differ depending on the role work plays in their life. For some people, work may be a focal part of their life and they will be keen to continue working throughout their treatment. For others, work may just be a means of paying the bills and they may prefer to remain at home during their treatment. In some cases, an individual may rethink their lives and decide to change their working habits completely or retire.

Cancer will impact an individual’s availability for work while tests and treatments are being conducted. Their treatment may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or other drugs that can cause unpleasant side effects. The symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment may reduce an individual’s effectiveness at work, although this may be temporary. It should be remembered that with advances in screening and treatments many cancers can be cured these days and an affected employee may return to full health and full productivity after their treatment.

Employers therefore need to recognise that each case needs to be considered individually and that employees who are diagnosed with cancer should be able to discuss their situation in a supportive manner. It should not be forgotten that employees may be affected by cancer even though they are not the sufferer and any cancer policy should consider the needs of the family of someone diagnosed with cancer.

What to do when an employee is diagnosed with cancer

stressatworkIf the company has a cancer, disability or serious illness policy in place this will provide a starting point for how the company manages an affected employee and their work. Even with an existing policy as a guide it must be remembered that each individual and their cancer is unique and will require a personalised course of treatment and therefore some level of personalised employer support.

At this early stage the employer has to strike a balance between the needs of the employee and the needs of the company with limited information. They may therefore need to take a flexible approach while allowing for consistency with previous (and future) cases of employee illness or disability.

The employee can choose to have a friend, employee or trade union representative with them during their initial (and subsequent) discussions. Notes from the initial meeting should be made available to all the meeting attendees, but not shared beyond the attendees without the written permission of the employee.

Logistically, both the line manager and HR may need to be informed to allow the company to provide appropriate support to the employee.

Implementing a policy for employees diagnosed with cancer

Employers should consider implementing a policy for employees diagnosed with cancer that outlines both their legal responsibilities and any additional support they wish to provide.

The policy should be applicable to both full-time and part-time permanent employees and allow for a customised approach that takes into account both the particular needs of the employee and the needs of the business.

The policy should include:

  • how the employee can inform the company of their cancer;
  • the employee’s confidentiality and privacy rights;
  • the work adjustments available to the employee during treatment;
  • the employee’s statutory rights with regard to absence and any other related company benefits;
  • the support (e.g. counselling) available to the employee;
  • the work adjustments available to the employee on return to work;
  • the employee’s statutory rights and any other company benefits if the employee decides to leave work; and
  • the recourse if the employee feels they have been treated unfairly as a result of cancer.

Employees affected by cancer

Cancer not only affects the sufferer but also their family, close friends and colleagues. A lot of the principles that apply to dealing with an employee diagnosed with cancer can also be applied to an employee who has a family member that has been diagnosed with cancer.

The employee may also need additional support, counselling, confidentiality, time off or flexible working to allow them to support their relative as they deem necessary. If their family member has terminal cancer they may wish to take a leave of absence to spend with their relative. (Where the cancer sufferer is a child, the employee will be legally entitled to up to 18 weeks parental leave to look after their child). They should be informed of their statutory rights and any other benefits or considerations regarding the absence and a communication means between the employee and employer should be agreed.

When the family member of an employee has died, the employee will require extra time off to make funeral arrangements and to deal with the ensuing affairs. The employer should offer their condolences and determine whether they should communicate the death to the employee’s colleagues.

Further information

This article only deals with a few aspects of how employers should deal with employees affected by cancer. The Bizezia Online Library includes a PDF publication covering this subject in much more depth. It includes a list of organisations that provide such support to cancer sufferers. It also includes guidance on a number of other issues, such as:

•    Confidentiality
•    Absence from work
•    Support and benefits
•    Working arrangements during treatment and recovery
•    Working during treatment
•    Returning to work
•    Managing a disability
•    Leaving work
Dealing with employees with cancer•    Terminal cancer
•    Implementing a cancer policy

Although not specific to absence from work due to cancer, Bizezia’s Work Manual includes a work policy that may be helpful for employers drawing up a caner work policy:  Employment Policy No.30 – Compassionate Leave Policy.

If you would like a copy of the PDF publication mentioned above, please email me at:

Martin Pollins
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