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Stephen Wallwork


Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist

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Cancer in the workplace: simple tips for employers


750,000 people of working age in the UK are now living with a cancer diagnosis, contributing over £16bn to the UK economy every year. With survival rates on the increase – health insurance companies suggested that cancer accounted for almost a third of long term sickness in 2015 – this looks to grow to more than 1.1 million people by 2030, making a significant contribution of £29bn every year.

A report by Oxford Economics for cancer charity Maggie’s and leading employee benefits provider Unum revealed that 71% of HR managers don’t have policies in place for communication and management of employees with a cancer diagnosis.

Nearly half (48%) of all HR representatives said that they believe line managers are unprepared for an employee with a cancer diagnosis, despite it being recognised that the line manager relationship is one of the most important forms of support for employees with cancer.

At Maggie’s our Centre visitors with cancer tell us that, despite their employer’s initial efforts to support them, an unintentional chasm can happen due to a lack of regular and meaningful communication and shared understanding on both sides.

A diagnosis, followed by job loss or a negative experience at work, can lead many employees to a collapse in confidence and self-esteem which can end with them dropping out of the workforce permanently.

Vocational rehabilitation

Maggie’s Centres across the UK run ‘Cancer in the Workplace’ workshops for employers and HR managers to provide useful insights, information and management strategies to help approach employees with cancer with knowledge, empathy and understanding. Some of these sessions are delivered with support from expert partners such as Unum.

Vocational Rehabilitation represents the support people with cancer need to return to, sustain and retain employment.

We know that work can help to prevent people with cancer from falling into a downward spiral due to a lack of purpose and structure, which can result in a loss of confidence, self-belief and, in some cases, depression.

Vocational rehabilitation can be defined as “a process that enables people with functional, psychological, developmental, cognitive and emotional impairments or health conditions to overcome barriers to accessing, maintaining or returning to employment or other useful occupation.” (Wardell, G, Burton, A and Kendall, N 2008)

Vocational rehabilitation’s five key principles

  • Early intervention.
  • Joining up health, social care and employment services.
  • Making sure employers are involved.
  • Facilitating access to specialist services for those with more significant barriers to returning to work.
  • Navigating services in a way that promotes self management.

How to talk to employees about cancer

Cancer will affect people in many different ways depending on the individual, the type of cancer, their treatment and where they are on their cancer journey. Some employees want to continue feeling ‘normal’ and in control and so carrying on with or returning to work can be emotionally beneficial.

For others it may be a financial necessity. The effects of cancer treatment can also leave many people unable to work.

Remember that when speaking to any individual there will be a wide range of communication styles and needs. Some employees will want to discuss their thoughts and feelings openly, whereas others will choose to keep this private.

If they are able, allow the employee to lead and tell you what has happened and how they want it communicated at work.

Other important issues to discuss are:

  • Risk of infection – do they need to be moved to a more isolated desk as cancer treatment can affect the immune system
  • Homeworking – if this is an option many people with cancer would appreciate the security and privacy this offers during treatment
  • Financial support – not only sick pay and benefits advice but any support towards counselling that may be on offer
  • Emotional support – perhaps a ‘buddy’ as someone to talk to that isn’t a direct manager

Best practice pointers for dealing with cancer in the workplace

  • Cancer is individual – There are many different types, different treatments and effects (short and long term)
  • Communication is crucial – Line managers are key, effective communication needs to be open, honest and fit for purpose
  • Support is essential – Effective communication and support for staff leads to sustainable long-term results, with higher retention rates for businesses
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Stephen Wallwork

Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist

Read more from Stephen Wallwork

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