Liz Egan: How to ensure staff and managers feel comfortable discussing cancer in the workplace

Liz Egan Macmillan

Each year, almost 120,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in the UK, according to figures sourced from the Office for National Statistics, Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit, ISD Scotland, and Northern Ireland Cancer Registry for UK 2012 cancer incidence among those aged 15-64. And with survival rates improving and people retiring later, this figure is set to rise.

With 85% of people wanting to return to work after cancer treatment, according to a Macmillan and YouGov survey conducted in May-June 2016, but 47% having had to give it up or change roles as a result of a cancer diagnosis, according to a Macmillan and YouGov survey conducted in June 2012, it is important to ensure that the right support and advice is available early on to prevent staff falling out of work when they do not wish to.

We know it can be difficult to know what to say in the workplace both from a manager’s and an employee’s point of view. However, having a conversation about cancer can be the first step towards the staff member with cancer getting the support they may need in the workplace. Under equalities law, an employer should try to support its employee; this includes putting reasonable adjustments in place to help them stay in or return to work when they are ready and able to.

If a staff member with cancer does not choose to share their cancer diagnosis with their employer, it will make it more difficult for an employer to provide support or make any changes at work that the employee may need during or after treatment.

Talking with their line manager or HR department is key in ensuring support can be put in place, from arranging time off or flexible working, to telling them about sick pay entitlements.

Encouraging a culture of open communication in the office is one way to try to ensure that if a member of staff is ever diagnosed with cancer, they will feel secure and confident enough to speak to their line manager or HR department about it. Another is to ensure staff are aware of the policies and support offer in place.

Macmillan has developed a step-by-step guide, Finding the words: talking about cancer at work, for employees to help them know where to start and what to say in these situations, which is also useful for managers and HR staff to read to prepare for any topics or questions that may come up.

How people communicate is very individual, and employers will need to consider their response in a given situation. Everyone is different and what is appropriate for one person will not be helpful for someone else. Sometimes it can also be good for individuals to have more than one point of contact at work. Someone other than their line manager can be seen as more neutral or easier to relate to about health where gender or age is an issue. This gives them the opportunity to talk confidentially about their situation and what impact it might have on their work. It is important to remember, however, that if the person does confide in a line manager, for example, this information is confidential, unless the person gives permission for this to be shared with the team or with HR.

We know that as a manager it can also be challenging to have these conversations, which is why Macmillan has developed some useful tips for managers about sensitive conversations: they should choose a private place to talk and make sure they will not be interrupted; be prepared for the meeting to overrun, let the employee set the pace; show they are listening, encourage conversation by nodding or with verbal cues like, ‘I see’ or ‘what happened next?’; show it is okay to be upset by allowing the employee time to express their emotions, and recover if necessary, while remaining calm themselves; and set up and agree communication plans if the employee is going to be out of work for a period of time during treatment.

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Overall, ensuring that employees and managers feel comfortable discussing cancer in the workplace is key. Employers could hold a Macmillan coffee morning, for example, and use it an opportunity to let staff know that they are there to help if they need support, as well as raising awareness about the different support they can access from Macmillan. Macmillan at Work also provides more in-depth training and support for line managers and HR teams.

Liz Egan is working through cancer programme lead at Macmillan Cancer Support