Supporting employees with cancer

Information on the different types of cancer an employee could be diagnosed with and whether it could be seen as work related or non-work related

Work related and non-work related cancer


Due to Coronavirus (COVID-19), there may be further support required for your employee who has had cancer in the past, or is currently undergoing investigation or treatment.

They may be in the category identified by the Scottish Government at very high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. To protect themselves, they have been issued with a letter informing them of shielding (external site) and what this means for them. 

Within this shielding letter, there is lots of information on support for them. They can also use this to provide evidence to you as their employer that they cannot work outside their own home. 

If they have not received a letter requesting them to follow shielding protocol, you may find that they still fall into a category of higher risk. This can be identified by the fact they get offered the flu vaccine by their GP. They do not need to accept this offer, but they need to have been classified by their GP as needing it because of their health condition. 


​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.

There are five main cancer groups, based on the type of cell the cancer starts in.

  • carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs
  • sarcoma is a cancer that begins in the connective or supportive tissues such as bone, cartilage, fat, muscle or blood vessels
  • leukaemia is a cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes abnormal blood cells to be produced and go into the blood
  • lymphoma and myeloma are cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system
  • brain and spinal cord cancers are known as central nervous system cancers

The cancers that we are more familiar with are classified according to where they start in the body, for example lung cancer.

Work-related illness

Work-related cancers can be caused by increased or uncontrolled exposure to occupational carcinogens in the form of biological, chemical and physical compounds. Exposures can come from direct or indirect skin contact, breathing in or ingesting a carcinogenic substance. There are a wide range of work-related situations that can lead to exposure including work with:

  • asbestos fibres
  • wood dusts
  • UV radiation from sunlight
  • metalworking fluids and mineral oils
  • silica dust
  • diesel engine exhaust
  • coal tars and pitches
  • arsenic and dioxins
  • environmental tobacco smoke
  • naturally occurring radon
  • tetrachloroethylene
  • many more carcinogenic substances

Shift work has been linked to a possible increase risk of cancer and this is the focus of a number of research studies.

Certain forms of occupational cancers may currently be compensable under the Department for Work and Pensions Industrial Injuries and Disablement Benefit (IIDB) Scheme (external site).

More information on the causes of, and research into, the expected work-related cancer burden for the UK can be found on the HSE website (external site). This research helps HSE determine priorities for future activity and these priority substances and occupations requiring support.

The Institution of Occupational Medicine (IOSH) (external site) and the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) (external site) both have cancer campaign web pages with information on work-related cancers and prevention strategies for workplaces.

Workplace health surveillance allows for early identification of ill health and helps identify any corrective action needed. Health surveillance may be required by law if your employees are exposed to noise or vibration, solvents, fumes, dusts, biological agents and other substances hazardous to health, or work in compressed air.

Our Health Risks pages have advice on protecting workers from exposure to substances that affect your skin and your breathing.

Non-work related illness

Cancer is not a single disease with a single cause. Knowing an individuals' history, both medical and occupational is the only way to establish the relationship between the disease and the cause. However, what is known is that individuals' have predisposing factors which can influence their risk factors, including:

  • genetics
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • age
  • exposure to carcinogens in the environment
  • changes in our hormone levels
  • inheritance of faulty genes for certain cancer types
  • and lifestyle choices such as overexposure to ultraviolet levels (from sun or sunbeds), level of alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity

Supporting a healthy workplace

We know that not just one thing creates a cancer, and that our risk actually depends on a combination of our genes, our environment and things to do with our lifestyle. It has been widely accepted that your chances of developing cancer are affected by the lifestyle choices you make.

Workplaces are in a good position to help influence choices around a healthy lifestyle, and taking steps to do so could lead to a healthy working life.

Your workplace may wish to invest in a programme to develop a healthy workforce and provide advice or health awareness on work and non-work-related cancers. Targeting awareness around the following topics may aid awareness and prevention:

  • avoiding tobacco
  • keeping active
  • a healthy body weight and a healthy balanced diet
  • sun safety
  • avoid certain infections (such as HPV or hepatitis)
  • drugs awareness
  • regular self-exams and screenings for various types of cancers