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    How to support an employee with cancer

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    Kate Shawcross, senior associate solicitor in our employment team, and a trustee of Lancashire and South Lakes charity CancerCare, shares some tips for employers on how to support staff members who receive a cancer diagnosis.

    It’s rather telling that one of the most common questions we are asked around this subject isn’t ‘what should I do?’ if an employee tells me they have cancer, but ‘what do I say?’.

    In that situation, we all want to show our humanity and react not as that person’s boss or line manager, but as a fellow person.

    While obviously there are policies and procedures for employers to follow, which we will go into below, the most important and overriding priority is to be as supportive as possible during a colleague’s treatment and recovery.

    This may be both practically in work terms, but also personally too in showing them you and other colleagues are there for them.

    Holding initial meetings and discussions

    When a team member is diagnosed with cancer, it is helpful for the manager and/or HR leader to have a meeting with them to fully understand the diagnosis and how it affects them. The employee may feel overwhelmed, so it’s vital to be compassionate and understanding and acknowledge they may not feel able to have such a conversation straight away.

    Your awareness and sensitivity should carry through any meetings and discussions and it may help to assure them that they will be supported by you as far as possible, thus allowing them to concentrate on their health and recovery.

    Helping your team member and colleagues to adapt

    Many employers are not aware they have additional responsibilities to an employee who has cancer. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone with cancer and there is no qualifying period of employment required for this protection.

    This automatic protection from discrimination also applies to prospective employees (job applicants) and to employees who are associated with a third party, such as a close relative, who has cancer. The protection continues even if the cancer is in remission.

    Employers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments. What is classed as ‘reasonable’ depends on the circumstances i.e. the size of the employer and its resources, and what is practicable.

    Adjustments for an employee who has cancer might include:

    • Time off to attend medical appointments
    • Enabling the employee to work from home or work flexibly
    • Offering a phased return to work after a period of sick leave
    • Modifying the employee’s role or responsibilities i.e. lighter duties.

    Keeping in touch and returning to work

    An employee may require periods of time off work to undergo certain types of treatment or to recover from surgery. During their time off, you should keep in touch to support them, keep up to date with their progress and, eventually, agree a return date when they feel ready. The timing of these conversations will depend on the individual circumstances and it is prudent to balance keeping in touch with intrusion. Allow for flexibility on a case-by-case basis as to the frequency and content of your communications.

    Returning to work can feel isolating, especially if the employee has lost confidence in their own abilities or feels out of touch with colleagues. They may feel they cannot take on all their usual responsibilities straight away. In advance of a return, discuss and agree a return-to-work plan, factoring in any medical advice about your employee’s capabilities, as well as implementing reasonable adjustments.

    Consider whether any targets should be revised to allow for a gradual handover of work. When the employee feels ready to build up their workload again, targets can be reviewed and revised further. However, if your staff member is struggling with the additional workload, further support should be provided.

    Employers should also be aware that cancer-related absence should not be counted for the purposes of triggering an absence management process. You should also regularly review and update any absence-related policies, as certain practices may be deemed discriminatory.

    Protecting confidentiality

    You should not inform other members of staff about an employee’s cancer diagnosis without obtaining permission from the employee. It should be agreed with them what information can and cannot be shared with other members of staff. It may be in the employee’s best interests to inform their colleagues so they can show support and understanding, but ultimately it is up to them.

    You should also be aware that you must ask for permission from the employee before requesting a medical report from a doctor or other health professional. In addition, an employee has the right to see the report before it is sent to you and can refuse permission for you to obtain it altogether. Care should be taken to protect your employee’s personal records containing information about their condition and such information should only be used with the employee’s permission.

    What to do next

    Everybody’s experience of living with cancer is different. It remains a hugely sensitive subject and one that is hard for many people to talk about or deal with, especially with their employer. From my experience advising employers, speaking with my own colleagues who have experienced cancer, and being involved with a cancer charity, the most important thing you can do as an employer is show support, apply common sense, and be human.

    For more information and advice around this subject, please contact our employment team on 01772 258321.


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