Author Profile Picture

Michelle Griffiths

Macmillan Cancer Support

Macmillan at Work Development Manager

Read more about Michelle Griffiths

How can line managers support employees with cancer?


When some people think of cancer, they may not realise the long-term impact it can have. In fact, 40% of cancer survivors are unaware of the long-term side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, despite 65% saying they’ve had to deal with fatigue during and after treatment.

These long-term effects – such as persistent hair loss, depression, fatigue, nausea and loss of confidence – can impact cancer survivors’ everyday lives, including employment.

Research from Macmillan Cancer Support shows that 85% of people want to return to work after cancer treatment, but that 47% have had to give up or change roles because of a cancer diagnosis. So getting support and advice early on is invaluable to prevent staff from having to give up work when they don’t wish to.

Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act or Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This means that where reasonable, employers should make changes to help an employee with cancer continue to do their job during and after treatment, and aid them in overcoming any struggles they face.

These changes are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’, and could be anything from allowing time off to go to medical appointments to working flexible hours, or enabling a phased return to work. With this in mind, it is essential that procedures are in place for employees with cancer to ensure they are fully supported.

Line managers – the lynchpin role

Line managers are key for any support strategy. They are the main point of contact for an individual at work, and are most likely to be part of the crucial initial conversations following diagnosis.  

It is important for line managers to feel confident, have open communication and understand the issues facing their staff. They should also know what support their organisation can offer and any legal obligations that they have.

Macmillan has therefore developed Macmillan at Work, which provides resources, guidance and training to employers to enable them to support people affected by long term conditions in the workplace.

Sian Evans, Head of HR Talent and Development at Sainsbury’s Argos, said:

“The Macmillan at Work programme has allowed us to support colleagues working through the effects of cancer, given us the confidence to manage sensitive conversations and allowed us to open up a forum for compassionate conversation.

“The response from those who have undergone the training has been incredibly positive. I know myself how much I appreciated the support my colleagues gave me when my own mother was diagnosed with cancer. Our employees can now feel supported through the bad days as well as the good days and just knowing you have this support offers the reassurance needed for you to be open and honest about your situation with your employer and colleague network.”

Ten top tips for line managers

We know that it can be overwhelming knowing where to start when offering support to employees affected by cancer. Therefore, we have pulled together ten top tips to give an overview of how to approach this:

1. Be sensitive to employees’ needs

Every person has a different cancer experience. Treatments and physical and emotional reactions to cancer will vary and what may be best for one employee may not suit another. Line managers should make time to understand employees’ individual needs.

2. Respect employees’ right to privacy

If an employee with cancer wants colleagues to know about their diagnosis, it’s worth asking them how they’d prefer this to happen. Line managers should also ask them if they’d like to keep in touch while they are away from work and decide together on the best way to do this. Equally, some people may not want their colleagues to be aware of their diagnosis, and this should be respected too.

3. Listen, understand and ask

Line managers should listen to employees and try to understand their situation. It’s fine to ask questions during discussions, to clarify your own understanding.

4. Check guidelines and policies

Line managers should check if their organisation has guidelines and policies to provide support, such as sickness absence, long-term conditions, time off work and occupational health policies.

5. Be prepared to adjust

Cancer is legally defined as a disability. This means reasonable adjustments should be in place – such as changes to the workplace or working arrangements that allow someone with a disability to work.

6. Recognising the impact on the team

Being aware of the impact that an employee’s cancer diagnosis can have on other colleagues is important – whether that’s practically or emotionally.

7. Check financial entitlements

Find out whether the organisation has policies for giving financial support to those off work, including occupational sickness pay. Some companies also offer further benefits that could assist an employee.

8. Respect carers’ rights at work

Keep in mind that employees who are caring for a person affected by cancer may need support too.

9. Discuss a return-to-work plan

If an employee needs to take time off work, line managers should talk with them about a return-to-work plan. This will help to identify any further support that might be needed such as a phased return to work or gradually handing over work. They may also require flexible options for working hours to support wellbeing.

10. Don’t forget, Macmillan is here to help

If you have any questions, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.

Author Profile Picture
Michelle Griffiths

Macmillan at Work Development Manager

Read more from Michelle Griffiths

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.