Managing cancer in the workplace: HR's role

A well-attuned HR team and supportive work family can make all the difference in helping vulnerable individuals stay in employment and ease back into work following treatment

As a GP I have supported many people with cancer over the past 30 years. And one thing that stands out to me as having made a real difference to people's lives is having the support of colleagues and managers. Understanding from a person’s ‘work family’ can make all the difference in supporting someone choosing to work through treatment or return to work.

People have a lot to worry about following a cancer diagnosis, so the last thing they need is to worry about work too. Being a supportive employer can help reduce their anxiety and give them the confidence to cope with cancer at work.

Employees with cancer are protected from discrimination in the workplace by the Equality Act 2010. It also covers employees with caring responsibilities – a fact that is sometimes forgotten. HR will want to be supportive but may not know how to express this. You may want to enquire after their welfare but avoid sounding as if you are pressuring the person to come back to work, or questioning their performance.

Under employment legislation cancer is defined as a disability. Organisations have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace for employees diagnosed with cancer. There is no fixed description or checklist for HR departments to follow and different people will need different help at different times.

Some don’t feel able to think about work, while others need to keep as much normality as possible. Some don’t want anyone at work to know, while others want everyone to be kept informed. Side effects can vary (tiredness, changes in appearance or chemotherapy-related ‘brain fog’), so there may be times when you need to adjust working hours or the role itself.

Flexibility and communication are key. Making reasonable adjustments will depend on the employees’ needs and the circumstances of the business. As the side effects and employees' needs change so should the workplace adjustments.

Check that your sickness and absence policies are up to date. You may want to introduce a cancer care or critical illness policy too. Provide training for managers on how to support employees with other long-term illnesses, as well as cancer.

HR may also have to support a broader network of employees who may be unaware of their workmate’s diagnosis, or may feel awkward and not know what to say, or how to interact with their colleague who has cancer.

It frequently falls to HR to set the pace and tone of the interaction. It’s important to have a full discussion with the employee and ask what (if anything) they want other people to know, how they want you as their HR contact to treat them etc. Whatever their wishes and approach, confidentiality is hugely important. You should not tell anyone without the individual’s permission, so be sure to agree a communications plan with them.

Unfortunately cancer is often taboo, especially in the workplace. When a person is first diagnosed they may be in shock and feel like a burden. In their eyes they have suddenly turned from a valued employee into a cancer patient, and will be reliant on support from medical professionals and their work family. A cancer diagnosis will turn their world upside down. They may be used to being in complete control of their life and their work – overnight their priorities have to change completely.

Many employees find it difficult to adjust to ‘normal’ life following a diagnosis of cancer. When people return to work the rest of the team will be delighted to see them. However, it’s understandable that in a fairly short amount of time they get used to having the person back again and don’t realise that they may be feeling tired or have other symptoms or side effects as a result of treatment.

A job can give someone a sense of normality to their life, restore social contact and income, and help with recovery. A well-attuned HR team and supportive colleagues can make all the difference in helping vulnerable employees stay at work, and ease back into work following treatment.

Sarah Jarvis is a GP, resident doctor on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and a consultant with Harley Street Concierge