My employee has cancer
Cancer impacts young people and their ability to work in different ways. You, as their employer, can (and should) help them manage this challenging and often life-altering experience. Legally, discriminating against employees or job applicants with cancer is a big no-no. It's your duty to make changes to help them do their job or stay at work. But don't view this as an obligation - be the employer that goes the extra mile to make your workplace the best it can be.
Understanding the impact of cancer
My employee has recently been diagnosed. Will they need time off?
Treatment patterns vary from person to person. This means that the disruption that cancer causes to normal life – including work patterns – can differ. Some young people might be treated in a hospital near them. They might be able to go in and out for treatment and lead a more regular day to day life. Some will have to travel long distances to a specialist centre and may have to stay in for long periods at a time.
Keep in regular contact and offer flexibility for hospital appointments. Once they have a better idea of what’s ahead, you can explore options with them for taking time off – or supporting them to continue working.
How will they be affected physically at work, either on treatment or afterwards?
The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Side effects of treatment can include:
- feeling and being sick
- tiredness and fatigue
- changes in mood
- eating difficulties
- reduced resistance to infection
- hair loss
- a limb amputation or scarring
- other changes in physical appearance, such as changes in weight and swollen hands, face, ankles or feet.
It’s important not to assume an employee has recovered just because their hair has grown back or they’re no longer receiving hospital treatment as an inpatient. Young people may still experience muscle pain, fatigue or anxiety among other ‘late effects’.
Will they need emotional support at work?
Cancer treatment is challenging, isolating and deeply personal. Young people with cancer are likely to experience anxiety and depression, or even panic attacks. They might feel insecure about their work prospects or lack confidence to talk about their cancer.
They will need an employer who understands what they are up against and that their mental health should be given equal consideration alongside their physical needs.Read more about the 'hidden costs' of cancer on young people's emotional and mental health
How can I help my employee?
People with cancer automatically meet the definition of ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. Employers cannot discriminate against people with cancer by:
- rejecting their job application for cancer-related reasons
- using cancer as a reason to move them to an easier or lower-paid job
- selecting them for redundancy because of their diagnosis
- penalising them for time off sick, without taking their cancer into account
- giving unfairly negative appraisals for not meeting targets eg due to fatigue.
Where reasonable, you should make changes to help them do their job during and after treatment. Failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ is a form of discrimination.
- allowing time off for treatment and check-ups
- changing parts of the job description so they spend less time on tasks that cause extra discomfort
- letting them work flexible hours, including working from home
- allowing extra breaks if they have fatigue
- organising the workplace to make it accessible if they need a wheelchair or crutches
- a designated parking space
- improving ventilation in the workplace if heat makes them feel especially tired or sick
- clear communication and offering update conversations with their line manager and human resources, especially during any periods they’re away
- a phased return to work after treatment, helping them to gradually build up their stamina and confidence again.
Employees need to tell you about their diagnosis before you can put adjustments in place (although they are not required to tell you).
Suggest a meeting to discuss their needs and support options. Check if they would prefer to meet with someone other than their line manager, or if they’d like anyone else at the meeting such as a colleague or trade union rep. It can be helpful for the person if you also show awareness that:
- their treatment will likely mean taking time off, for which you may already have a policy on flexible working or returning after sick leave
- treatment for cancer can continue to impact them physically and emotionally after they have finished
- it’s up to them how much information about their cancer is shared with others or kept confidential
- they have a right to be protected against discrimination because of having cancer.
A reasonable adjustment always depends on individual circumstances. For example, if treatment reduces their resistance to infection then it might be reasonable to allow them to commute to work outside of rush hour if they use public transport. When working out what is reasonable, you can take these factors into account:
- the effectiveness of making the adjustment and whether it is practical to do so
- size and type of employer
- financial resources of the employer
- availability of financial assistance such as the Access to Work scheme.
In a nutshell?
Being a good employer to someone with cancer means demonstrating empathy and a willingness to support them, with policies to back this up. Make sure the person knows they can talk to you and that you'll listen. Check they know how to access any support available. This will create a positive working environment and helps to get the most out of all your employees.