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Cancer patients unaware of their rights at work - and HR's not helping

Many cancer patients returning to work are unaware of their rights at work, and HR departments are failing to inform them.

According to research published today (4 February) for World Cancer Day by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), nearly half (43%) of cancer patients returning to work were unaware they were legally disabled under the 2010 Equality Act.

Of those who did know, only one in five (22%) had learned this from their HR team or occupational health professional.

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Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the IES and co-author of the report, who lives with cancer, told HR magazine that this lack of awareness is costing employees their right to a phased or flexible return to work and driving some to exhaustion.

He said: “Many of our survey respondents said that their bosses or colleagues assumed that, because they looked well on the outside, they were back to full health.

“Sadly, extreme fatigue and an elevated risk of anxiety or depression means this is rarely true.”

Many cancer survivors have to undergo regular CT scans to monitor their health, and, for many, the resultant ‘scanxiety’ combines with a constant fear that the cancer will return. 

The resultant emotional burden, he added, is often invisible or well hidden.

Barbara Wilson, who lives with cancer and is CEO of Working with Cancer, said more employees working with cancer need to know about legal adjustments when at work. 

She said: “We are worried that so many people living with cancer – and their employers – remain unaware that the Equality Act entitles cancer patients to workplace adjustments which can help them return to work and adjust to life with or after cancer. 

“Our own work with people living with cancer shows that access to information about managing work and cancer, coaching support and flexible working can make an enormous difference to people’s lives.”

Bevan added that HR has a responsibility to engage with employees throughout their treatment.

He said: “HR folk should be much more proactive and stay in touch with patients during their treatment, making it clear how sick leave, sick pay and time off for medical appointments will be managed.”

HR should liaise with occupational health professionals and line managers, he added, to ensure a work plan is in place.

It should then provide training and support for those managers, and monitor the employee’s return as their recovery improves.

Many patients (33%) did not phase their return to work at all - and a quarter (25%) had to take annual leave to receive treatment.

Around 14 million cancer diagnoses are made each year worldwide, set to increase to about 25 million by 2025.

The IES research surveyed 1241 working age people living with cancer in the last quarter of 2021.


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