Supporting employees with cancer

Information and guidance on the support that can be given to an employee with a cancer diagnosis

Supporting those with cancer at work

This page offers an overview of cancer for the employer, employee and self-employed. It touches on work and non-work related cancer types, legislation, work sustainability and support networks available to help in meeting individuals' needs. More detailed guidance on supporting staff to remain in work can also be found under our Supporting employees with long term health conditions pages.

Cancer can take many years, or even decades to develop, (a long latency period) some individuals may have an increased risk of cancer due of predisposing factors and lifestyle. Cancer can also be caused through exposures due to the work that people do.

Over 750,000 people of working age are living with cancer in the UK, many of these people remain in work through their treatment. As many as 63,000 people with cancer today want to work but are unable to do so because they do not have the right support. It is also estimated that by 2030 an extra 130,000 people with cancer could return to work after treatment, with the right support.

The range of cancer types and treatments and the prognosis (outlook), as well as the physical and mental impact on the individual, can vary greatly, even for those with similar diagnoses. For those affected by cancer, work is important. A job can restore a sense of normality and wellbeing as well as contributing to financial independence. But many cancer survivors find returning to work a struggle as they deal with short- or longer-term treatments as well as their side effects, which also vary from person to person and on a day-to-day basis.

Some employees may find it beneficial to their mental wellbeing to remain at work while having treatment and while they remain physically able to do so, while others have difficulty with this especially if their immune system has been affected by treatment leaving them susceptible to viruses and infections. A keyword for employers supporting their staff is flexibility.

As an employer, you may be faced with supporting staff at various stages of their diagnoses, treatment and recovery. Ideally, to support them the best you can, a strategic approach involving a number of professionals may be best. It is important to involve the worker at all stages and maintain open communication with them.

You may find that the worker does not wish to discuss their condition and this is their right, it may be easier to work with a third party such as occupational health services as its not always easy to know the right thing to say and what to do. It's important to have a general understanding of the employee's long-term prognosis such as is the cancer treatment intended to cure or control the symptoms of the disease.

It is recognised that the reason why many employees struggle to remain in, or return to, work is the lack of vocational rehabilitation services. Many employers also struggle to know what help and support they can offer. There is an increasing amount of information available for line managers, human resources and occupational health professionals on helping individuals with cancer stay in work, such as Macmillan’s Work and Cancer training and web pages.

Elements of good practice in supporting employees with long-term conditions, in general, can be found in our Long-term conditions pages.

Things to consider

You may want to consider

  • The workplace may want to offer support and signposting to other groups who can offer specific support to the individual, for example:
    • 'Access to work'
    • employee counselling
    • local cancer support services
    • Maggie Centres (staffed by Cancer Support Specialists)
    • benefits advisers, nutritionists, therapists and psychologists, all providing support in whichever way best suits the individual.
  • Consider how your workplace could rally round the individual and their family and friends to support them further through information campaigns at work, fundraising for cancer support charities etc.
  • Consider (as part of the risk assessment process) if they work with any hazardous substances which may be contraindicated whilst receiving cancer treatment.
  • Fluctuating health and stamina levels are common side effects of treatment and may have more impact on shift or full-time workers. Amending work rotas (e.g. starting later and finishing earlier at work to avoid rush hour), home working if appropriate or a combination of both may help these symptoms.
  • An employer can help the employee to tell the relevant people about their condition by finding out whether they are happy for colleagues to know about their cancer diagnosis, supporting them in their decisions and offering to speak to people on their behalf.
  • It is important for the organisation to also raise awareness among co-workers about the implications of a person’s cancer diagnosis – what to expect, and what their limitations might be, any changes in job function, how they want to be communicated with etc. When the time is right an employer should have that conversation with the affected employee.

If you are self-employed, you may have financial or other concerns about keeping your business going while you are having treatment and recovering. There are some Government benefits available if you are sick and self-employed, such as Employment Support Allowance. There may also be charitable grants that you qualify for. Speaking to the Citizen's Advice Bureau or a benefits adviser may help you find out more. You may also find business advice services helpful, such as the Government-run Business Support Helpline (external site).

While having a member of staff who develops a cancer is a real possibility for many workplaces, you may also find that a staff member has become a carer for someone experiencing cancer. In such circumstances, many of the difficulties around attendance at work – fatigue, finance and anxiety – are all still valid and a considerate workplace would consider many of the elements above as part of their support package to keep these cares engaged in the workplace as well. Macmillan Cancer Support offers advice on supporting carers.

Support for employers is available from a number of sources including the Beatson cancer charity (external site) and Macmillan Cancer Support (external site).