Cancer and work

This week (23-29 January 2012) is Cancer Talk Week, which aims to help raise awareness of cancer and encourage people to talk openly about it. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event. In addition to dealing with the diagnosis, prognosis and prospect of on-going treatment, people can often find it very hard to talk to others about their condition, not least because other people may feel awkward or uncomfortable talking about such a sensitive issue perhaps because they aren’t sure of the ‘right’ thing to say or are scared of saying the ‘wrong’ thing.

According to Macmillan Cancer Support (which offers support and information to people affected by cancer) more than one in three people will be affected by cancer at some point in their lives so the likelihood is that most people will know people who are suffering from cancer. Cancer can occur at any age although the risk of developing cancer increases with age. The most common cancers for men and women are:

Men Women
Prostate cancer Breast cancer
Lung cancer Colon and rectal cancer
Colon and rectal cancer Lung cancer
Bladder cancer Uterine (womb) cancer

Importantly for employers, cancer is now covered as a disability under the remit of the Equality Act 2010 either because the illness itself may limit a person’s day-to-day activities, or because possible effects of the illness (such as depression, which may occur as a result of the diagnosis) can be classed as a disability. Because of this, employers must offer appropriate support to employees suffering from cancer in order to fulfil their legislative duties.

Being diagnosed with cancer does not necessarily mean the end of someone’s career. Whilst participation in (and recovery from) treatments may mean a certain amount of time off work, not all cancer sufferers take long-term sickness absence. However, because no two cancer diagnoses are the same, employers need to remain flexible when working with employees to decide on issues such as:

  • what they are and are not capable of doing;
  • how their treatment is likely to affect their ability to work (how long they may need to be off work, etc.);
  • what adjustments should be made to their work in order to allow them to continue working (in so far as this is possible);
  • whether they need to be restricted from specific working environments (e.g. exposure to infection sources during chemotherapy);
  • discussion of any external support services that could be of help;
  • what on-going support employees feel they may need.

For advice on supporting an employee who has been diagnosed with cancer, or for help with any other employee health issues, call the free Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 99 44. In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has a downloadable guide on its website entitled ‘Cancer and working: guidelines for employers, HR and line managers’, which offers guidance for employers on dealing with the issues arising at different stages of the illness.

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