How to handle an employee's cancer diagnosis

21 September 2014

Guidelines for employers

Here at AXA PPP healthcare we understand that when an employee has been given a cancer diagnosis it can be very stressful to all concerned. 

Being diagnosed with cancer can be one of the most difficult situations that anyone has to face. It can cause great fear and worry, and can affect every aspect of their life, including their ability to work.

With AXA PPP healthcare's private medical insurance, all our members who are diagnosed with cancer can benefit from the individual support of our Dedicated Nurse service.

Our experienced nurses will provide your member of staff and their family with telephone support and guidance about their condition and recovery. They can explain what treatment options are available, and answer any questions they may have. They also provide information about support services available and a listening ear at a potentially difficult time.

Below are some useful tips taken from the Macmillan Cancer Support Site on how you can assist your employee through this difficult time.

People have different views about work. For some, it's the center of their lives and they would feel lost without it. For others, it is a means to an end - something they would give up if they could. For some people, cancer and its treatment will be a challenge; something to get through so they can get back to their normal life, including work. For other people, it will be an opportunity to rethink their lives and consider retraining, retiring or taking early retirement.

Many people find that they can't continue working while they are having treatment, which can sometimes lead to difficult financial situations. It is important that employers are sensitive to their employee’s needs. Employers need to take the time to have such conversations with their employees, bearing in mind the following points:-

Try to:

  1. Choose a private place to talk and make sure you won't be interrupted.
  2. Be prepared for the meeting to overrun, let your employee set the pace of the meeting.
  3. Show you are listening, encourage conversation by nodding or with verbal cues like, "I see" or "what happened next?"
  4. Show its okay to be upset by allowing your employee time to express their emotions, and recover if necessary, while remaining calm yourself.
  5. Show empathy with phrases like "you sound very upset."
  6. Respond to humour but don't initiate it, humour can be a helpful coping strategy for people going through a difficult time.
  7. Adjourn a meeting if your employee becomes too distressed to continue.
  8. Let the employee take the lead by telling you what has happened. If you need to move the conversation on a bit, you could try asking about (a) how they are feeling. (b) whether they wish colleagues to be informed and what information should be shared. (c) what sort of time off they might need for medical appointments and during  treatment (they may not know at this point, it's often a case of seeing how things go.

Try not to:

  1. Be afraid of silence, its okay if it goes quiet for a bit.
  2. Don't be too quick to offer advice.
  3. Don't use clichés like, "things could be worse" or "things will work out."
  4. Don't discount your employee's feelings.
  5. Don't share stories about other people you know who have cancer; this takes the focus away from your employee.

Employees living with cancer often feel "out of touch" with work during their absence. It is important for an employer to maintain appropriate contact with their employee during periods of sick leave. This contact can be maintained through their line manager or a nominated contact.

It is important that communication is handled carefully so that your employee still feels valued but doesn't feel you are pressuring them to return too soon. If possible, discuss arrangements for keeping in touch with your employee before their absence. Ask them if they want to receive newsletters and key emails. Do they want to hear from colleagues? If so, how and how often? Ask your employee to identify a good time to get in contact.

Cancer treatment may make it difficult for an employee to keep in contact at certain times on a certain day; keep that arrangement as your employee may have made the effort to be "up and about." Sometimes an employee may not want any contact. Explore the reasons and reassure them you just want to be supportive. It may simply be a reflection of how they are feeling at that point in time. You can revisit their decision at a later date when they may find the prospect of contact from work less daunting.

Returning to Work after Cancer

After cancer, some people expect to get back to work to the way life was before and go back to work straight away. An employer who believes that a person's absence from, or irregular attendance at work is having a negative effect on the organisation, can dismiss that person if the employee is not capable of doing the work for which they are employed.

However, everyone with cancer is classed as disabled under the Equality Act, or the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Northern Ireland and is therefore protected by these Acts. An employer can't discriminate against an employee because they have had cancer.

Many companies have an occupational health service for their employees, which can offer support in various ways to employees returning to work. Some are able to rearrange work times to avoid stressful times such as rush hours. Sometimes part-time work can be arranged at first, to ease an employee back into their job. Occupational health departments may also offer counselling, both before and after their return to work, this must be completely confidential.

Some employees can feel tired for a year or more after their treatment. They may have other physical changes or effects of treatment that they are still dealing with and are also likely to feel emotionally exhausted. Some employees can't wait to return to work. Other employees need to start working again as soon as possible for financial reasons. Some people decide that their priorities have changed and they want to do a different kind of job or they may decide to stop working altogether.

For most employees, returning to work is a big step in their recovery. It helps distract them from worrying about their health, and brings structure and security back to their lives.

The employer has a duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to workplaces and working practices to make sure that people with a disability are not at a disadvantage compared to other people. An example of a reasonable adjustment might include:

  • Allowing some flexibility in working hours
  • Allowing extra breaks to help an employee cope with fatigue.
  • Temporarily allowing the employee to be restricted to "lighter duties."
  • Allowing working from home.
  • Allowing "phased (gradual) return" to work after extended sick leave.

Further information can be obtained from the following websites:

Macmillan Cancer Support
Find out more about living with the practical, emotional and financial effects of cancer. This website contains expert, accurate and up to date information on cancer and its treatments including advice on work and cancer.

Cancer Research UK
Contains patient information on all types of cancer.

Department for Work and Pensions
Department involved with a number of issues including work, benefits, retirement and disability. Has public information for people with a disability.

The UK government's digital service for people in England and Wales. Includes details on how to contact your local job centre.

Trades Union Congress
Information about employment and disability rights.