An anxious-looking woman at a window

Briefing: Living and working with cancer – supporting staff

Most of us have heard the devastating statistic that one in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. With the heart-breaking story of Bowelbabe flooding the news and our social feeds, it is a harsh reality that cannot be ignored. With such a high proportion of the population being affected by cancer, whether directly or indirectly, what does this mean for employers? What can be, and should be done to support staff and manage absences from the workplace? This briefing by Pam Loch of Loch Associates looks at the issues.

Managing cancer in the workplace
A diagnosis of cancer is not only upsetting but also practically challenging to manage from an employer’s perspective. Many diagnoses have an uncertain prognosis and an individual’s ability to work will vary, depending on how they respond to their treatment. Cancer is classified as a deemed disability under the Equality Act 2010, which protects individuals from being treated unfairly or unfavourably due to their disability. This means that an employer must not treat an employee less favourably, either pre- or post-recruitment and must consider and make reasonable adjustments to make sure the individual is not substantially disadvantaged in being able to do their job. Examples of reasonable adjustments that could be made include allowing extra time off for treatment and check-ups, offering flexible or home-working, allowing extra breaks or even providing a designated parking space if the premises allows. It’s important to keep in mind that the right to have reasonable adjustments made also extends to those in remission and – following a landmark decision in 2018 – the presence of pre-cancerous cells also amounts to having cancer.

Employees with cancer who are absent from work should be managed in the same way as other employees and would still be expected to provide Fit Notes to cover any sickness absences. Employers would be expected to manage the situation sensitively as the employee may not know their own prognosis or have limited information. Therefore, it’s worth thinking about obtaining an Occupational Health or HR Medical Specialist report so that you can gain a better understanding of their condition.

Obtaining consent to get a medical report from their GP and Consultant Oncologist can also help employers to have a wider understanding and ensure they are meeting their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments, while managing the ongoing absence.

The human effect of cancer
A diagnosis of cancer not only affects the individual who has received the diagnosis, but their support system too. Close family and friends will not only be affected emotionally, but they may also require additional time off to assist the individual with appointments and other general caring duties. This is something employers need to be aware of and be sensitive to, as other staff will form views on how the situation is handled, which can then affect staff management and retention too.

It is also important to note that if an employee needs to offer support to a dependent, for example a partner, child or parent, where the dependent reasonably relies on the employee for care, the employee may be entitled to carer’s leave. This right is a ‘day one’ right, which means their eligibility is not based on length of service. Although it is unpaid, it allows employees to take necessary time off to assist with caring needs, without relying solely on their annual leave entitlement. Employers should be aware that an individual is able to self-certify themselves as being a carer. Therefore, it is important to have policies in place to ensure this type of leave is managed properly.

Employers should be cautious about how they view any additional time off or how they manage employees who may be understandably distracted or impacted by the situation they are in. The protection afforded by the Equality Act 2010 not only protects the individual who has a disability, but also those around them. An individual who is treated any less favourably due to someone they are closely associated with having a protected characteristic, in this case a disability, can bring a discrimination by association claim. Associative discrimination is when an individual is discriminated against because of an association with a person who has a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. For example, you have two individuals who may be in line for a promotion, both with the same experience, however one of the individuals has a partner who is suffering from cancer and therefore needs more time off. If you were to choose the individual who does not have an unwell partner, you may be exposing yourself to an associative discrimination claim. It is advisable to have clear policies in place to train your managers to cover these eventualities to ensure all employees are treated equally.

Employers should also be aware of and sensitive to the impact on morale if an employee is diagnosed with cancer. Regardless of the relationships between employees, it will no doubt have an effect on the entire team, as well as potentially bringing back past experiences for those who have encountered cancer previously. This can put a subsequent strain on managers, as they are likely to be the first point of contact for any concerns their team have. Offering additional training and encouraging the use of mental health first aiders can be a helpful way to support and show your team you take their wellbeing seriously. Employers or managers should keep in contact with the individual who is unwell and keep members of staff updated (with their consent), where appropriate and clearly set out how the business will support those who may be struggling.

Those close to people with cancer often experience a feeling of helplessness and frustration that they are not able to help. Arranging fundraising events can be a way to get people involved and lift morale. If your business has a chosen charity, employees may also find it comforting if it is a charity that contributes towards the fight against cancer.

Any diagnosis, whether within the team or in their support network, raises emotional and personal concerns. It’s important to remember that no two situations are the same but preparing your managers to know how to react and respond initially is a good starting point.

Pam Loch, Employment Solicitor and Managing Director of Loch Employment Law.

IOSH Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing, brought to you by International Workplace, is suitable for managers and supervisors working in any sector and for any organisation. It's designed to provide them with the tools and techniques to improve health and wellbeing in the organisation.

The course covers:

  • Ergonomics, demographics and types of working.
  • Giving employees the knowledge and skills to identify wellbeing issues, and to act on them.
  • Work-related health issues – such as how to deal with employees living with cancer, long-term diseases, mobility issues and poor mental health.
  • Understanding that an employer’s duty of care extends beyond health and safety, to employee wellbeing.