Managing cancer in the workplace

Cancer. A word we are all, sadly, too familiar with. Staggeringly there are now 2.5 million people living in the UK with a cancer diagnosis and this figure is estimated to increase to 4 million by 2020.

Of the 2.5 million with a diagnosis, 890,000 of those are of working age and 700,000 carers are estimated to still be working whilst trying to support their loved ones. 85% of those affected want to continue working but some 33% end up giving up their job.

With statistics like that, the chances of one of your employees being diagnosed with cancer or one of their family members being affected is extremely likely.

It's important to realise that a cancer diagnosis is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, for life; yet only 64% of managers realise this.

So how can you best offer support to an employee going through cancer themselves or who is supporting someone that is?

Firstly, we need to have a more open door on talking about it but more importantly, making people feel comfortable in doing so.

Often an individual's understanding of the path of their treatment is limited at first because treatment is only the initial starting point.

As an employer, it's good to understand the effects that treatment may have so you can look at adjustments and support mechanisms that you may be able to use, where needed that can help your employee stay in work, should they choose.

What short term/long term side effects are there likely to be?

One of the most common is fatigue. Everyone suffering with cancer struggles with this, without exception, as the body is fighting and treatment is exhausting. Feeling this way becomes 'normal' and individuals need to adjust and realise their own capabilities when on their treatment plan.

Hair loss is mostly associated with chemotherapy treatments and can occur over a period of time. For some, particularly women, may struggle with self esteem and body image issues as a result of losing their hair. If they have previously been in customer/client facing roles, they may lose significant confidence. Some facial cancers, and resulting scarring, can also have a deep impact on self esteem.

Lymphodema can cause water retention of up to 2.3 litres of water so can cause sufferers to feel quite heavy. You may need to consider a change of desk location if accessibility could be an issue.

Colostomies will be common in digestive/bowel cancers and will obviously become a sensitive issue and be difficult to speak about. It's important for there to be suitable facilities for emptying and disposing of bags in privacy. It's easy to miss the simple things like providing a unisex toilet, such as a disabled toilet, so males as well as females, can access hygiene bins.

Testicular cancer can cause testosterone levels to drop. Hormone therapy can be difficult to manage in rebalancing levels and can cause some changes in mood/aggression.

It is important to note that these are just a handful of examples of the types of side effects you may see, but there are so many different types of cancers and other side effects that you may need to support. Remember to include this in your conversations with anyone who might be suffering while working, or returning to work.

Reasonable adjustments

It's important to really engage with the individual when talking about any adjustments that they or their doctor may recommend to be of benefit to them. Simply talking to the individual and understanding what they are dealing with will go a long way in finding the right solution.

Typically recommendations are likely to be based around:

  • Work patterns - this may include adjustment to start/finish times or a phased return to work.

  • Type of work being done - if someone usually has quite a manual job then they may be restricted in lifting/carrying or moving heavy items. Guidance from a medical professional, or engaging with occupational health will be useful for all parties.

  • Adjusting job measures and targets - so someone isn't unfairly disadvantaged in appraisals or reviews. Don't overlook individuals when looking at career development and succession planning if you wouldn't normally.

  • Chairs - you may need to consider a change of chair for someone who is desk based to help make them more comfortable.

  • Breaks - to help manage fatigue or other symptoms you may need to allow for additional breaks. These won't need to be paid unless you choose to do so.

  • Time off - those suffering or supporting someone suffering will need time off to attend appointments. Some appointments can fall very frequently, depending on treatment, for if they want to stay at work, if you can accommodate it try to do so.

  • Policy - you will need to adjustment your absence management system for affected individuals, especially trigger points if they're stated in your policy.

For any adjustments that are put into place, take steps to review them regularly because things don't stay the same. What may be achievable early in treatment may become more difficult later on. Keep communications open and solutions flexible.

Often people ask what is reasonable? Reasonable is what is right for your business but the general rule of thumb is using a common sense approach.

From a Macmillan survey, 51% of individuals said that their manager didn't discuss pay, flexible working arrangements or reasonable adjustments with them after they had disclosed their diagnosis. If you have a member of staff currently affected by cancer and you haven't talked about these things yet, arrange a meeting at a time and location where they are able to talk with ease.

Macmillan offer some fantastic downloadable resources that you may find useful and you can find them here: We also have The Macmillan Work and Cancer Toolkit here at our office. Please let us know if you need to access this.

Remember, make no assumptions and have no expectations. Everyone handles cancer differently and like us all, have good and bad days. Remember to see the person, not the cancer.

Please note our blog posts contain general information and are intended as guidance only and should not be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. Please ensure that you obtain advice tailored to your individual situation before taking action. These posts apply to the UK only.

#cancersupport #workplacesupport #employeeassistance #reasonableadjustments #sideeffects #shorttermeffects #longtermeffects #sicknessabsence

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