How to bring staff who are suffering with cancer back to work

More than 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year, so employers need to understand how best to support them.

When it comes to the health issues that affect employees, cancer may be a less common culprit than mental health or musculoskeletal conditions, but its impact on employees, their colleagues and their employers must not be underestimated.

Every year, more than 100,000 people of working age in the UK are diagnosed with cancer, according to Macmillan’s Making it work report, published in October 2010. And more than 800,000 are caring for people with cancer, according to our More than a million report, published in January 2012.

More than four in 10 of those who are working when diagnosed with cancer have to make changes to their working lives, with almost half of them changing jobs or leaving work. And as the population grows and ages and the retirement age rises, cancer will become an increasingly common issue for employees and their managers. So what can employers do to help rehabilitate employees back to work?

Common problems

Cancer and its treatment affect people in various ways: common problems include fatigue, pain, reduced freedom of movement and depression, and practical issues such as the need to take time off for treatment or check-ups.

New and improved treatments are helping more people live with cancer as a long-term, chronic condition. Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

By law, employers must consider requests such as flexible working hours or physical adjustments to the workplace from someone who has cancer. But there are more than just legal reasons to offer support. Helping them stay in employment avoids the need to recruit a replacement, and boosts loyalty and morale.

More than 70% of employers that make workplace adjustments to support staff with disabilities such as cancer fi nd them easy to implement. Changes such as flexible hours or the employee working from home cost nothing. If there is a cost, such as buying special equipment or setting up awareness training for colleagues, staff with cancer can apply for grants, such as the government’s Access to Work scheme.

Navigate the options

Our Essential Work and Cancer toolkit can help employers navigate the options. Our cancer policy template can also guide HR teams in developing a policy for managing cancer in the workplace, while our e-learning resources can help educate occupational health teams.

Employers must remember that everyone’s experience of cancer is unique and, therefore, their response to it will differ. Some employees will not want, or be able, to work after a cancer diagnosis, whereas others find work can restore normality, stability, social contact and income.

Many staff with cancer will lack support at home, possibly having to face treatment and recovery alone, so line managers can play a vital support role. They will know an employee’s needs and wishes better than most others in the organisation, so must be familiar with policies.

Of course, the real expert in how best to support an employee with cancer is usually the employee. If they have complex needs, it may be appropriate to ask their permission to speak to their healthcare team, but in most cases they will have the clearest idea of what they need.

Perhaps the most important strategy is good communication. A sudden phone call from an employer during sick leave can cause employees distress and anxiety, so agree in advance how to keep in touch. When communication is done well, it can be the key to successful support.


  • Each year, over 100,000 people of working age in the UK are diagnosed with cancer.
  • More than 40% of staff who are diagnosed will have to change their working lives.
  • Cancer and its treatment affect people in a variety of ways.

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Laura Dillingham is Working through cancer project manager at Macmillan Cancer Support