Supporting employees with cancer – a little thought and effort will go a long way

February 4, 2020

Categories Employment Law

Today, 4th February is World Cancer Day and a round 2.5 million people in the UK are currently experiencing this disease, many of whom will hold down a job while undergoing treatment.

A diagnosis of cancer is a devastating blow. It would be foolish to underplay the emotional and physical impact it has on patients and their families.

No-one with the condition should be worrying about work.

Macmillan Cancer published a report in March 2019 after having spoken to 1,500 workers with cancer. 27% (over a quarter) received no support to help them back to work after a diagnosis. Of those that did 23% did not feel well enough to be there.

Cancer is recognised as a ‘disability’ under Equality Act 2010, and accordingly, employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with this condition, particularly when they are undergoing treatment.

What this means in practice and how it is applied is often misunderstood. Supporting an employee with cancer does not mean terminating their employment because the employer decides they may not be able to cope with the stress of their job. This is what happened to Terry Foster whose dismissal letter was published by BBC News on 7 November 2016.

It started as follows ‘since you informed the Company of your medical condition and the diagnosis of Mantle Cell Lymphoma our main aim has always been to give you the best possible support…’   It ended by saying ‘To this end we as a company feel it would be negligent to subject you to undue stress and pressure… which could delay or effect [sic] your recovery.’  Accordingly, Mr Foster’s employment was terminated, a decision which only added to his stress (he had a mortgage to pay).

This is not to suggest ending employment is never an option, but all too often it is predicated on the basis of a supposition with a focus on the negatives, rather than on facts and on what the employee can do.

On this day, therefore, it is apt to set out  more constructive ways in which organisations can support their employees with cancer, and their employees who are caring for someone with the condition:-

  • Apart from sick leave, consider extending compassionate leave to someone receiving treatment and for a carer of someone receiving treatment. Caring responsibilities are draining and all consuming.
  • For employees caring for a child with cancer, they have the right to request parental leave and should be reminded of it.
  • Employees may wish to make use of voluntary annual leave to alleviate any financial burden of taking time off.
  • All employees can request flexible working, both employees with cancer and their carers. Flexible working is broad and includes reduced hours, days, home working, compressed hours – any working arrangement which departs from the usual contractual hours.
  • Offer time off in lieu, if appropriate.

For employees returning to work, after cancer treatment, Macmillan has put forward a few useful points to help managers in its guide for employers:-

  • Welcome them back. Be there on their first day, or failing that, make sure you phone in.
  • Make sure the rest of the team are expecting them, adding to the welcome.
  • Meet at the start of the day to discuss their work plan and handover arrangements. This is another opportunity to check for concerns they may have.
  • Arrange a smooth handover. Make sure they don’t come back to a mountain of work and emails.
  • Make sure they are taking breaks and that they are not over-working.
  • Consider a health and safety assessment, especially if there has been a change in duties or working arrangements. If they are working from home, you should assess this environment for health and safety too.

It is easy to forget, in a busy working day, about employees with cancer or indeed any long term health condition. Some will struggle on nervous to ‘make a fuss.’ They may not recover quickly and may always need additional support.

Apart from the legal requirements it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a human condition – effort and thought in how best to support staff who have become unwell will not be lost on anyone in the organisation.