Written by Donna Bonfield | 15th November 2023

Around 6 in 10 people decide to continue working during or after cancer treatment according to Macmillan, and the choices you make to support them are in everyone’s best interest.

Cancer not only affects people with the diagnosis but also their family, friends and colleagues, so here are some suggestions to support your employees at work, or to return when they are ready.

How to support employees with cancer

Understand their needs

It is important that you take the time to communicate and understand the support employees may require, from the point of diagnosis and during any periods of absence to planning their return to work.

Results from a 2022 survey by The Institute for Employment Studies and not-for-profit Working With Cancer of employees affected by cancer, found almost a third would like more return to work coaching and 1 in 5 would benefit from reduced workload and an Employee Assistance Programme. If possible, you should discuss with employees how best you can assist them.

You might ask if they want to be kept in the loop with emails and office news. Do they want to be contacted regularly or will they contact you first?

Also respect how they want to approach the news with other team members – they may wish to keep the diagnosis between you and them. If employees want the rest of the team to know, agree between you what details will be shared if you are the one to the deliver the message to the team.

Handle communication carefully because there is a risk that employees might feel you are pressuring them to return to work too soon.

Be flexible and make reasonable adjustments

You should talk to employees about making any adjustments that may ease their experience at work or return to work.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments to support employees affected by cancer, which could include flexible working hours, a phased return-to-work plan, working from home, work breaks, adjusting performance targets and changes in the work environment. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – every employee will be different.

If employees do stay in work, there will undoubtedly be many hospital appointments, tests and treatments they will need to attend, and you should help them prioritise these among their workload.

Many adjustments are free, and where there is some cost, it may be possible to apply for a grant from Access to Work schemes. Remember that small changes can make a big difference to employees to enable them to continue working.

Provide training for managers

For any manager or employer, supporting employees affected by cancer can feel daunting, and you may feel pressure to act in the right way and say the right thing.

To help, we recommend offering managers and employees training from services such as Macmillan and Working With Cancer to increase awareness about cancer in the workplace. Macmillan offers a work and cancer toolkit, masterclass webinars, virtual training sessions and regular newsletters. Working With Cancer offers training and coaching to employers as well as individuals affected by cancer on working during cancer and returning to work post treatment.

Check your policies 

Whether employees are absent for short or long period of time, you should review your organisation’s sickness absence policy and communicate this to the affected employees.

Your absence policy should include information on how time off for medical appointments will be dealt with, statutory sick pay and other pay such as occupational or company sick pay.

Of course, you may decide to pay over and above any statutory or contractual obligations – this is down to you as the employer.

If an employee is a carer for someone with cancer, they are entitled to take reasonable time off to deal with an emergency affecting a dependent. Whether this is paid or not will depend on your organisation’s policy.

Return to work

Cancer can be unpredictable so any return-to-work plans you make with employees should be flexible. Flexible work and a gradual, phased return are potentially helpful ways of easing someone back into the workplace.

The Institute for Employment Studies survey showed only two-thirds of respondents were offered a phased return to work and almost a quarter had to take annual leave during their treatment.

Ultimately you should discuss and mutually agree the best way forward with employees as only they know whether they are ready to return to work.

It’s a good idea to schedule a meeting a couple of weeks ahead of their first day back at work. This gives them a chance to hear important updates and raise any concerns about what to expect. It also allows you to find out how they are feeling and make any adjustments or solve any potential problems before they occur.

Fear of redundancy is high among people receiving cancer treatment according to the Institute for Employment Studies survey, so you should strive to make them feel part of the team. Arrange a smooth handover so they don’t come back to a mountain of work, carry out regular reviews and make sure they are not overworking.

If you have any questions or would like advice around supporting employees affected by cancer, please get in touch with our HR Consulting team at [email protected].

You may also want to join us for our upcoming webinar – Working with Cancer.

On February 1 2024, we will join Penningtons Manches Cooper, Macmillan and Wote Street People for an interactive session hosted by The Pink Place Charity. This will support and guide employers so that you feel prepared and informed, should one of your employees be affected by cancer.

Book your place for free via Eventbrite here.