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Managing Cancer in the Workplace

Tags: cancer, discrimination, employment law...

According to statistics published by cancer charity Macmillan, there are over 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK and over 700,000 of which are people of working age living with a cancer diagnosis, while an average of 100,000 of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year. Whilst these figures are high, with early diganosis and treatment advances, survival rates are increasing.

With increasing numbers of people living and working with a cancer diagnosis, it's crucial that HR professionals and line managers are clued up with managing cancer in the workplace and understanding cancer at work. 

Here we get some insight from our very own  HR Manager, Jillian Fleeming and Debbie Palmer, People, Culture and Performance Partner with Macmillan. They touch on some of the key points regarding what employers can do to sensitively, compassionately and legally manage cancer in the workplace.

The bigger picture of managing cancer in the workplace

Whilst the statistics may seem grim, Debbie notes that there are some positives despite the high numbers. These of course being early diagnosis and treatment, which ultimately increases the survival rate of cancer patients. 

Given the prevalance of cancer diagnoses, you would think that employers and line managers would be more aware of the severity of the situation. However, according to a recent survey, 48 percent of managers did not know that cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Furthermore, the UK economy is losing an average £6.3 billion due to employees working shorter hours or not at all in order to seek treatment following a cancer diagnosis.

Understanding employees working with cancer 

We are familiar with the physical implications of cancer, but what some people might overlook is the psychological side effects of a diagnosis. For ambitious professionals who stake a great deal of their confidence and sense of self assurance on their career, the unexpected curve ball of having to minimise hours or possibly stop work altogether can be a devastating blow to their psychological wellbeing.

“When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, the shock can initially make them feel numb, and it may take some time for them to come to terms with their diagnosis. However, the initial shock may very likely be followed by anger, bitterness, sadness, fear and worry, loneliness and isolation,” cautions Jillian Fleming.

There is also the fact that cancer may leave a severe dent in one’s finances due to them having to seek treatment and being unable to work full time if at all. Experiencing financial stress in addition to the physical discomfort of cancer will unsurprisingly make circumstances all the more challenging for those who have been diagnosed with cancer.  Employers need to keep this in mind when managing cancer in the workplace and making a plan. 

Employers' responsibilities for supporting employees with cancer 

 It’s important that companies are aware of their legal and practical obligations when an employee is diagnosed with cancer. Below, Jillian provides some advice. 

Provide an opportunity for a supportive counselling session: As soon as you're made aware of the diagnosis,  encourage the employee to have a confidential and supportive discussion with HR Department or Manager. The Human Rights Act 1998 protects an individual’s right to have personal information kept private. This includes medical information, and so this should be kept confidential, and dealt with sensitivity at all times.

Maintain confidentiality: The employee may not wish for others to know about their diagnosis, therefore a communication plan should be agreed, including what should and should not be mentioned to colleagues, clients and customers.

Accommodate their availability: Liaise with the employee to put in place workplace strategies in respect of: options for time off, keeping in touch, return-to-work plans after long-term absence, adjustment to working arrangements and responsibilities, and leaving work.

Do not discriminate: Everyone with a cancer diagnosis is classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and is therefore protected by this.  Employers therefore have to make reasonable adjustments to workplaces and working practices for the diagnosed person. These will depend on a number of factors such as cost and practicality, and should therefore be dealt with on a person by person basis depending on their needs. The Equality Act covers all aspects of employment, including recruitment process, terms, conditions and benefits, and opportunities for promotion and training. It covers unfair treatment compared to other workers, such as unfair dismissal, harassment and victimisation.

Anyone with cancer should not suffer a detriment in the workplace as a result of their diagnosis.

Communication with employees managing work and cancer

Debbie notes that there are four thinking traps regarding cancer at work, and these have a negative impact on the way colleagues interact with someone who has been diagnosed. These are being overly positive, believing that a cancer survivor is the same person as they were pre diagnosis, assuming that work is not as important to a person who may be struggling with the disease, or that ailing individuals are ‘playing the cancer card.’

“Colleagues sometimes struggle so much to say the right thing they choose to say nothing at all, only adding to potential isolation and anxiety. Others unwittingly come across as flippant or uncaring while trying to say and do the right thing,” she observes.

Too many people have the tendency to adopt the ‘Stay Positive’ narrative when interacting with an individual who may be going through a personal difficulty that is incomprehensible to those who have never had the same experiences.

“Often when people have concerns around cancer, others will try to be upbeat and positive about the situation,” Debbie points out, highlighting how such a reaction, although perhaps well-intentioned, ultimately demonstrates a lack of sensitivity and compassion.

“While nobody wants to be surrounded by doom and gloom, well intentioned comments such as ‘I’m sure things will work out, ‘fingers crossed’ and ‘ try to take your mind off it’ can sometimes land as being dismissive and showing a lack of empathy,” she cautions.

While positive reinforcement may seem like the best course of action, it is often better to listen and show support in the form of acknowledging, understanding and respecting the sufferer’s physical, emotional and mental process regarding their illness. 

After Surviving Cancer

There is a common misconception that once a person has survived cancer, everything will return to normal. But it’s important to remember that cancer survivors are still classed as living with a disability, and while they may seem perfectly healthy on the outside, they are often still experiencing a series of physical and psychological side effects.

“Try not to judge them as who they were before cancer – or how they ‘appear’ to be after. Comments such as ‘you look really well’ ‘ you used to be great at this’ or wanting them to talk too soon about objectives or career progression, may put them under undue pressure to ‘be’ well and  leave them feeling overwhelmed,” Debbie advises.

The assumption that work or career progression is automatically deemed less important to employees diagnosed with cancer, is also a common mistake that can leave them feeling alienated and a burden.

“The other extreme of not pressuring them about career progression, is to believe they don’t want to be at work at all,” says Debbie.

“Try not to judge them on how you think you might feel if in the same situation. Research shows just how important the normality of work can be for cancer recovery and the people I work with are totally committed to doing the best they can at work – they just might not be able to do quite as much as you or even they believe,” she says.

As shocking as this may sound, some people may believe that sufferers are merely playing ‘The Cancer Card’ in order to get some extra perks at work. Cancer is classed as a life-long disability, regardless of whether or not the diagnosed individual is given the all clear.

“People need to work to aid their recovery, they want to contribute, but their capabilities are likely to be reduced for a considerable period of time. Cancer recovery is unlike any other illness and is more likely to take 12 months than 12 weeks. Be aware that people have ongoing challenges to contend with and need your support, not your frustration,” says Debbie.

The bottom line is that cancer is not something anyone will sign up for, so showing an extra dose of empathy and compassion regarding the unforeseen circumstances of a cancer diagnosis, should be your focus. Furthermore, staff members should be educated on the emotional, mental and physical side effects of cancer, and how to interact with people in a sensitive and supportive manner.

Macmillan have some excellent resources on managing cancer in the workplace  on their website. 

If you found this helpful, then you may be interested in our blog about managing mental health at work.  

About our contributors

Jillian Fleiming

Jillian is HR Manager at Search Consultancy. She provides operational support to the Search management group and staff, offering pro-active advice & guidance on a variety of HR issues.

Debbie Palmer

Debbie represents Macmillan in our Managing Cancer workshops nationwide, and is currently a People, Culture and Performance Partner who helps organisations, their leaders and teams perform in times of challenge and change. She works in many different areas, including leaders in new positions or with team challenges, those returning to work after illness or maternity leave and those in career transition.

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