My employee has cancer

Why should you care?

Cancer is a life-altering experience. It impacts young people and their ability to work in different ways. You, as their employer, can and should help them manage this challenge. Legally, discriminating against employees or job applicants with cancer is a big no-no. Number one reason to care – 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 work environment the best it can be. Workplaces are cottoning on that supporting their staff’s wellbeing will help them to feel more engaged and motivated. This isn’t a cost. This is an investment. Number two reason to care – you get back what you give.

Meet Maddy. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Maddy started working as soon as she finished her radiotherapy to cover her living costs. Thankfully, Maddy has had employers who have supported her needs. She says:

 

My managers were super understanding about my health. As soon as I joined, I explained that full shifts would be very hard for me with my fatigue, so I was always given 5-hour shifts. This let me get back into physical activity and work after months of being too unwell to do anything. I’m now working full-time in a graduate job. My line manager gives me the whole day off with full pay whenever I have to go back home for hospital check-ups. We have a meeting every week to discuss my work and wellbeing and I feel comfortable discussing my health. I feel confident that if I relapsed, my employer would immediately be there to support me.

Maddy, 25

Number three reason to care – you will be helping people like Maddy to get a step up after a huge knockback. Cancer doesn’t care about them, but you can.

Need more convincing?

  • Creating an atmosphere where your staff are more likely to disclose medical conditions means you can plan ahead and minimise disruption
  • Investing in your staff’s wellbeing means you retain skills, knowledge, experience and talent (plus you avoid the costly recruitment process)
  • Implementing good practice can boost your reputation both internally and externally – feel proud and shout about how you’re helping young people to thrive.

Be a workforce for good

People who have cancer are impacted in different ways. That means they’ll have different needs. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to work out what your employee needs to do their job effectively and do your best to make it happen.

How you can help depends on how long ago they were diagnosed. In other words, someone in your workforce who has recently been diagnosed will require different support from a potential employee who has disclosed they had cancer a number of years ago.

Don’t worry – we’ve made it easy for you. Below is your step by step guide for figuring out what action you need to take and when.

 

 

1 | My employee has been diagnosed

Be there for them

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. Try not to put pressure on them to decide too quickly. They may not know how treatment will affect them yet.

Ask if and how they want to share their diagnosis

Remember that employees do not have to disclose medical details and have a legal right to confidentiality. However, disclosing details means you will be able to put systems into place and offer support. Ask whether they are comfortable sharing their diagnosis with other staff and if so, how they would prefer this to happen.

Let your employee know who else they can turn to

Explain that your employee is welcome to bring someone along to any meetings. This could include a colleague or member of your Staff Forum if you have one, a friend or family member, or a Trade Union representative.

 

2 | My employee is having treatment

Stay in touch

Lots of young people feel their employer is supportive when they are first diagnosed but the longer treatment goes on, the less supported they feel. It’s important that your employee still feels valued and part of the team. Being diagnosed is a disorientating time and many people struggle with losing their sense of identity. Maintaining contact will help them to feel connected.

If your employee is taking time off, establish how often you will be communicating and how is best for them to do this. This should be a joint decision. For face-to-face meetings ask whether home visits, coming into the workplace, or something more informal (such as meeting for coffee) would be best for them.

Remember that this is a balancing act. They want to focus all their energy on getting better right now, and that’s understandable. Don’t hound them or put pressure on them to make decisions. Just establish what you need to know in order to crack on with business as usual and try to check in on their terms.

Prepare to make positive changes

If your employee is going to continue working, they’ll face huge challenges. Be ready to put reasonable adjustments in place. This means making changes to help them do their job.

Cancer and treatment can make you feel sick and fatigued. It can be painful. It might make it difficult to eat, or reduce resistance to infection. If they are going to carry on working through this, they’ll need you to help reduce their discomfort. Like allowing extra breaks, offering flexible hours or giving them a designated parking space.

One more thing. Don’t assume an employee is ok because they ‘look well’. Treatment doesn’t always result in hair loss or weight changes. Make sure you keep checking in to see if their needs are being met.

Read our reasonable adjustments guide.

Understand your legal duty

Don’t discriminate against anyone with cancer. This point might seem painfully obvious, but discrimination can take many forms and it’s best to read up to protect yourself – and your staff. For example, failing to make a reasonable adjustment is a form of discrimination.

People with cancer automatically meet the definition of ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. You 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 e.g. due to fatigue.

Understand what discrimination looks like and how you can prevent it at gov.uk

Be transparent

If you will be arranging cover for your employee, explain this as early as possible and outline how long this will be for.

 

3 | My employee is returning to work

Plan their return

Our research found that one in four young people felt pressure to return to work even though they didn’t feel ready. So, have an honest discussion with your employee about how prepared they feel. Schedule a meeting to discuss their return to work and decide together on a plan and key milestones.

Offer your employee a phased return to work such as working shorter hours or fewer days. This will help them to gradually build up their stamina and confidence again. Remain flexible and remember that the plan may need to be updated.

Think about their day to day practice

Discuss how you could alter objectives, deadlines and performance-monitoring in the short and long-term. Consider their workload and plan together how is best to manage it. You could also ask your employee whether they feel they’d benefit from any additional support or training, such as refresher courses or inductions with new staff members.

Be aware of the emotional impact

Cancer treatment is challenging, isolating and deeply personal. 90% of young people said they’d experienced anxiety, with many other reporting depression and panic attacks. 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.

Find out about the ‘hidden costs’ of cancer on young people’s emotional and mental health.

Keep making reasonable adjustments

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’. Time off is often needed after treatment finishes for follow-up appointments and to manage any long-term side-effects.

Employers don’t understand the need for regular hospital appointments... I have no control over the time of the appointment! Also, they don’t understand that, because of my cancer, when I get ill it lasts a lot longer than a normal person and it is a lot worse. They also don’t recognise that even six years down the line from treatment you can be exhausted and just need a day to recuperate.

Young person with cancer

 

4 | A new or potential employee has disclosed they’ve had cancer

Understand what young people are up against

  • Nearly half of young people said that cancer has had a negative impact on their career progression
  • 3 out of 5 young people feel they have missed out on an employment opportunity due to cancer
  • 2 out of 3 young people said they are concerned about whether to or how to disclose their diagnosis to a current or potential employer
  • 2 out of 5 young people felt that cancer has been a barrier to gaining work experience and employability skills
  • 2 out of 5 young people have had to downgrade their employment ambitions or choice of career due to cancer
  • 2 out of 3 young people said that cancer has reduced their confidence to work or apply for jobs.

Recruit people fairly and lawfully

It is against the law to treat someone less favourably because they are disabled. So rejecting someone’s job application for cancer-related reasons is discrimination.

Read more about avoiding discrimination during recruitment at gov.uk.

Life experience vs work experience

Young people are facing an increasingly competitive job market where work experience is key. They worry about their lack of experience and gaps in their CV.

Life experience can play an important part in how well a candidate may fulfil the requirements of a job; think resilience, the ability to deal with stressful environments, or having a sense of direction. Tell applicants that life experience and voluntary work will be considered as part of the recruitment process.

I’m worried about how I will look for work after cancer, with such huge gaps on my CV

Young person with cancer

Offer a variety of opportunities

Give young people the opportunity to demonstrate their skills through work experience. The government’s Access to Work programme can assist with funding adjustments for disabled people on work trials. Specialist employment service providers which help unemployed disabled people into work can help employers too.

Use the above principles to support a new employee

Look back through this guide and find all the ways you could help a new starter feel welcome and supported in your workforce.

  1. If they consider themselves as having a disability or health condition, is this something they would like to share more widely?
  2. What other support is available to them? Trade Union? Staff Forum? Occupational health or employee support programmes?
  3. Do you need to make reasonable adjustments in order for them to thrive in their role?
  4. Will they need flexibility and time off for appointments?
  5. Do they need emotional support for their mental health as well as physical side effects?
  6. Consider how you can proactively foster an open and supportive environment where they – and your other employees – feel they can build their career. Check out our last section and go the extra mile to be a workforce for good.

 

5 | Go the extra mile for young people with cancer

We need employers like you to blaze a trail and give young people the best chance of fulfilling their potential. Will you help us create change?

Encourage disabled applicants

Young people with cancer often lack the confidence to apply for jobs in the first place. They worry that their need for support will put employers off. Or feel that they won’t measure up.

When creating job adverts, state that you welcome applications from people of all backgrounds and support flexible working. This affirms to young people with cancer that your organisation is one where they could thrive. Make sure to mention if you have an equal opportunities policy or are signed up to the Disability Confident scheme.

Read more about creating accessible job adverts and attracting diverse talent at gov.uk.

Mirror your vision in your policies

Review your policies relating to time off, sick pay and flexible working to ensure they are providing adequate support. Involve employees in this process. Proactively communicate them with staff so they understand their entitlements.

Download your free equality policy template from acas.org.uk

Educate your workforce

Cultivate a tolerant and accepting environment by broadening your staff’s understanding. The more managers and HR teams understand how cancer impacts young people, the more effectively they’ll be able to manage and support an individual.

Direct them to the young people’s section of our website for an insight into how cancer disrupts their lives.

Foster an open and caring culture

Create a buddy system by asking employees with experience of cancer or of caring for someone with cancer whether they would be happy to support someone else in a similar situation. Run this in a way that suits the needs and capacity of your workplace – it could be managed centrally by your HR team or run informally.

Support our Hard Work campaign

We are calling for more support from the government for employees AND employers, as well as better awareness of reasonable adjustments, flexible working and the impact of childhood, teenage and young adult cancer.

Pledge your support today

USEFUL RESOURCES FOR EMPLOYERS

A collection of articles, guides and toolkits to help you make the best choices for employees who have - or who've had - cancer.