How employers can support employees with cancer – and protect their workforce by improving cancer awareness in the workplace 

employees with cancer

It is highly likely that all employers will need to support an employee with a cancer-related issue at some point.    

Cancer is incredibly common. 1 in 2 people are likely to face cancer during their lifetime, with more than 350,000 new cases diagnosed each year.  

COVID has exacerbated the situation. Too many people are now being diagnosed either late or later than they should. Many postponed GP visits about warning signs or ill-health during the pandemic. Clinics, counselling and chemotherapies for those already in treatment have been disrupted and delayed. All of this may lead to worse outcomes for many individuals.  

Although a cancer diagnosis is not always fatal, it is always a serious matter requiring urgent care. Both the condition and the treatment inevitably disrupt people’s health and ability to work. It creates a need for emotional support from those at their workplace and many practical considerations too.  

As an employer, you must be prepared not just to fulfil your legal duties around an employee’s cancer concerns. You must meet ethical and practical responsibilities too.  

Ways to support employees with cancer or grow cancer awareness at work

1. Don’t make it up as you go along when there are experts to call on.  

You can easily be better prepared to support employees with cancer and protect your workforce.

First, inform yourself fully about best practices, common factors, and sources of good information. Cancer is emotive and distressing, but with proper guidance and clear procedures it can become a little easier to manage. 

There is plenty of excellent expert advice about dealing with cancer in the workplace. You can find employer guides on cancer and employee cancer advice from major Cancer charities and Occupational Health bodies. Some useful links include: 

One of the experts we turn to is our employee health director, Dr Steve Boorman, who brings decades of occupational health experience.  

We asked him what the first step should be for an employer seeking to improve their handling of employee cancer. He says “I would encourage them to visit the Macmillan Cancer Support website. It not only has good advice for employers, but also a wealth of information for individuals about working with cancer, communicating with their manager, and useful financial advice resources and recommendations.”  

There are many different types of cancer-related interactions that a manager may have with a worker.  It is vital to back them up with the right information, procedures, and tools.  

Unprepared people react in ways they can later regret. One customer related an instance that shines a bright light on the importance of supporting managers on cancer communications: 

“I can’t tell you how much I needed your employee health system, when my invaluable, right-hand assistant told me she had been diagnosed with cancer just as I was walking into a high-pressure Board meeting. I needed it to help me give the right guidance and the right information at the right time – as well as the ability to immediately refer my dear colleague to the right Occupational Health support.” 

Empactis EHMS Customer 

You should ensure that all line and team managers are prepared, informed and equipped for different scenarios. They need clear workflows and steps to follow.

This helps managers respond more appropriately and more predictably.  

HR and workforce leaders must also be well informed too because they need to support managers facing tough conversations and deal with related actions.   

7 cancer conversation scenarios for managers:

  • Speaking with a staff member who is experiencing a cancer health fear, or who has an active scare and potential diagnosis under investigation.  
  • Responding to an employee who is newly diagnosed and providing them essential support. Cancer is a recognised disability, from the point of diagnosis onwards, and there is thus a legal duty to adapt and adjust around their needs.  
  • Supporting an employee with a cancer diagnosis in their close family – creating mental health concerns such as fear and worry. There are also potential practical issues of caring, hospital visits, or regularly accompanying someone to chemotherapy which may interrupt attendance or create significant distractions.    
  • Some workers may wish to retire after a cancer experience – while others will wish to return to work. Each requires specific and very careful practical handling and support.  
  • Financial concerns are a very common accompaniment to a cancer diagnosis, so engaging with health insurance or EAP scheme providers will be a priority.  
  • Sadly, there may be occasions when employers need to support workers around a death from cancer. It may be the death of a team-mate or colleague that causes distress. Or it may be a need to support a staffer who has lost a family member to cancer.  
  • Finally, those with compromised immune systems are at significantly greater clinical risk from COVID. Employees who are undergoing treatment or have recently had treatment may not wish to return to offices while the virus remains prevalent. Flexibility or adjustment to work patterns or location may be required. Some may not return at all and opt for early retirement or resign on medical or disability grounds.   

Each of these instances requires not only informed preparation, but a different management response and steps. This requires well planned workflows, and an array of information. All this needs to be easily accessible at the time managers or HR teams need it. 

3. Engage in awareness activities on a planned and regular basis. 

Raising awareness of cancer in the workplace can help protect the workforce. The more aware people are of symptoms, the more likely they are to spot a potential issue and seek help.  

There are multiple ways for employers to get involved with cancer awareness or create cancer initiatives in the workplace.  

Get on board with an existing cancer awareness event. These occur throughout each year. The awareness calendar includes:  

Incorporate cancer within your community activities, employee volunteering and charity initiatives. That might mean encouraging staff to enter a Race for Life – or perhaps kick off with the Winter Run this February. Check out what is possible at this list of cancer events from Cancer Research UK.

Interested in a wider range of health awareness raising opportunities? Check out our calendar of health awareness raising days and events for 2022

4. Incorporate cancer into your planning

Consider cancer within your Corporate Social Responsibility planning. CSR strategies span philanthropic activities as well as ethical, environmental, and economic responsibilities. Organisatsions create the best CSR activities around what matters to their stakeholders. Any organisation which has experienced cancer within its workforce could consider making a one-off or regular business donation to Cancer Research UK or a relevant cancer specific charity.  

Last, incorporate cancer risks fully and appropriately into your workplace health and safety measures. Some roles and activities are more exposed to cancer risks than others, so make both workers and their managers aware of this as needed. You can find more information on this workplace cancer risks page from Cancer Research UK.

Planning to do more and better

Whether as part of duty of care for employee health and wellbeing, or due to a desire to do more and better, there’s really no excuse for being ill-prepared to manage cancer in the workforce.  

It should be a planning factor in your employee health management and sickness absence procedures. Cancer should also be considered as you formulate healthcare and protection benefits and evaluate potential scheme providers.  

In the wake of the pandemic, current employees will consider how you engage around employee health. It may influence whether they stay, and whether candidates decide to join you.

We have outlined many excellent reasons and ways to take action, so get involved! Plan some cancer awareness raising and make cancer part of your workplace health and wellbeing planning.  

Cancer is just one of many health topics that managers may deal with in conversations with their staff. In every case, employers should help them to give the right responses, at the right time. This is why we designed our our employee health management software.  

So, we encourage you to go further, and get proactive on employee health overall.

Work to build a healthy workplace culture with excellent employee health management processes. Create conditions that encourage open conversations about health between staff and line managers. Provide the right information, platforms, and processes to support them, and sustain your strategy. Empactis can help you do this – please get in touch.