· Features

How to support men with cancer in the workplace

Work can be important to many people with cancer because it provides a sense of normality, purpose and focus. While the majority of people have a very positive experience of returning to work, men in particular may be missing out on the support available because they often struggle to talk to their employer.

Our research, commissioned in partnership with cancer support charity Maggie’s, found that two-in-five men who returned to work after cancer treatment underestimated the physical, mental and emotional effects of the condition, such as fatigue or memory loss, and the impact they may have at work. Although many men found working with cancer harder than they expected, one-in-five put off telling their HR department about their cancer diagnosis until they had to take sick leave or receive treatment. One in 10 didn’t tell their HR department at all. 

Employers clearly have a vital role to play in helping staff who choose to return to work. So what can they do to make sure they are providing the right support, especially if employees with cancer may not know what support they need or feel uncomfortable asking for help? 

Communicate openly and meaningfully

Effective communication is essential if employers are to provide the right support. Men with cancer may not always feel comfortable asking for help, so employers need to create a culture of openness and encourage them to raise issues. This isn’t just key at diagnosis; it’s just as important to maintain good communication while the individual is off work and when they return to the workplace to make sure they feel supported and that the right adjustments are made. 

Understand the impact of cancer

Our research found that 81% of men with cancer think it’s important that employers understand what staff with cancer are going through. When treatment is complete and the most obvious symptoms subside, it can be easy for employees and employers alike to assume that things will simply return to normal, but it takes time to adjust to the longer-term consequences of cancer, such as fatigue or memory loss. Employers need to recognise this and agree positive, realistic goals and timeframes with the individual involved. They should also be aware that some men may find it difficult to admit that they need extra help, either to themselves or their employer. 

Agree a tailored and flexible return to work

In many cases, employees won’t be able to jump back into the same role they filled before their cancer. It can be difficult to anticipate what their resilience and stamina will be, but a phased return to work will allow staff to come back for a few hours a week and build up slowly. It may also be necessary to make adjustments in the workplace – whether that’s by providing ergonomic equipment and opportunities for remote working, or actually changing their responsibilities, for example by moving them to a role that is less physical or requires less travel. 

Get advice and training

Many employers worry about doing or saying the wrong thing when it comes to managing employees with cancer, but there is a lot of third party advice and training available to help. For example, Maggie’s and Unum run free workshops in Maggie’s centres across the UK to educate employers on how best to support staff with cancer. This is something staff value too – 79% of men with cancer thought it would be helpful for their employer to have access to expert advice on how to support employees back to work. 

By getting this right everyone can benefit. Employees who choose to return to work after cancer will have the support they need, while employers can fulfil their responsibility to staff and retain talent.

Joy Reymond is head of rehabilitation services at Unum