Joy Reymond: How to deal with cancer

Employers need to rethink their approach to supporting employees with cancer, and here’s how.

Four in 10 people will develop cancer at some point in their life, but it remains a difficult subject to talk about, especially in the workplace.

On the upside, more people are living with cancer than ever before, thanks to better awareness of diet and fitness and advances in treatments. Those who have lived through cancer want to lead as normal a life as possible, returning to the life they had before. For many people, this means returning to work.

But new research we commissioned with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, Can work, will work, published by Oxford Economics in November 2012, shows employers have yet to catch up with these medical advances. More than 63,000 people living with cancer in the UK who want to work are encountering barriers preventing them from doing so.

Employers must therefore reassess the way they deal with cancer.

Meaningful communication

Employers should maintain open, regular and meaningful communication while an employee is off sick or having treatment. This will show the employee that they are still a valued member of staff and makes it easier for them and their employer to talk about how to return to work when they are ready to do so.

Employees with cancer feel that employer support reduces once they return to work. Many feel their job may be at risk and are therefore unwilling to ask for changes to their duties or hours, even though this would help them be more effective in their role. Employers must ensure these issues are addressed.

Employers should remain flexible about how cancer sufferers return to work. This could involve exploring other ways for the employee to contribute. They may be able to do another job or work different hours. A phased return-to-work plan could help.

Private medical insurance

Employee benefits that can help tackle the cost of some of these issues include private medical insurance. That said, the benefi ts that will most help employers are those that offset the costs of absence and help employees back to work.

If an employee is still not recovered after three to six months, long-term income protection insurance can assist with specialist vocational rehabilitation.

An assessment of what an employee expects from their return to work after cancer is key, as is sharing this information with all staff. Most people have no idea what the cancer sufferer is going through, either mentally or physically. Giving employees greater insight into this can help the employer respond appropriately and prepare everyone to deal with it. Employers should give line managers the support they need to manage staff with, or recovering from, cancer.

Lack of knowledge

Misunderstanding and lack of knowledge can create a rift between an employee and their line manager. Managers should be trained to understand what adjustments the employee might need, and how to design an effective return-to-work plan.

Employers must also support managers so they can include the returning worker back into their team. For example, managers who have lost productivity by making adjustments for the affected employee should not be penalised.

A coach, mentor or third party can help to facilitate communication and education between employers and staff, breaking down barriers and providing guidance.

Employers need to invest time and effort into ensuring that an employee with cancer is managed well and sensitively. But the result is worth it: they will not lose the knowledge and skills of that employee, they will avoid the cost of replacing them; and they will have a more loyal workforce.


  • Employers must address the way they deal with cancer.
  • Regular contact with employees who are suffering, or have suffered with cancer, is key.
  • Flexible working is one way to help affected employees return to work.


Joy Reymond is head of rehabilitation services at Unum