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Equipping line managers to support staff with cancer

Each year, almost 120,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in the UK, and half a million people care for someone with cancer while juggling work. What’s more, with survival rates improving and people retiring later, these figures are set to rise.

For people with cancer, staying in or returning to work can be hugely positive. There is strong evidence that work is good for both physical and mental health and wellbeing – and it can even help with recovery.

However, it can be difficult for a line manager to know how to support someone with cancer. There are a number of challenges they may face from the moment someone is diagnosed, through their treatment and then if they decide to return to work.

The impact of cancer

Cancer and its treatments affect people in a variety of ways: common side effects include fatigue, pain, reduced freedom of movement and depression. People may also need to take time off work for treatment or check-ups.

New and improved treatments are helping more people live with cancer as a long-term, chronic condition but reasonable adjustments are often needed to help for short or long periods of time.

Research carried out by Macmillan reveals that less than half of line managers know that cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act or Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The legislation requires employers to make reasonable adjustments if the location, working arrangements or a lack of extra support (auxiliary aids) puts someone with cancer at a substantial disadvantage.

There is no fixed definition of ‘reasonable’. This will depend on the circumstances, including practicality, cost, the extent to which the adjustment will be effective, and the extent to which the business may be disrupted.

Equipping line managers

So how can the business equip line managers to provide the best individual support for staff they manage, while adhering to organisational policies?

There’s so much to prepare for. Some readjustments might be needed to smooth the way. Colleagues might need supporting too.  And people aren’t always comfortable with issues around cancer. What do you say? What don’t you say? What changes can help the person fit back in? How do you strike a balance between work and treatment?

The amount of awareness raising and training provided for line managers on workplace health and wellbeing differs across organisations. Although HR and OH managers recognise the importance of the line manager in supporting someone living with or beyond cancer, the capability of line managers to give this support varies.

Debbie, a People Policy Specialist at Marks and Spencer, used Macmillan Cancer Support’s resources to “help to reduce the ‘fear factor’ for managers supporting employees with cancer”. In particular, she felt these top ten tips for line managers were “invaluable”. Debbie says, “I use this as a basis for the discussion with every line manager who is supporting someone diagnosed with cancer.”

How cancer affects carers

There are also growing numbers of staff trying to cope with the mental and physical strain of caring for someone while working. Recent research from CIPD shows that more than one in three employers report that absence levels have increased because their staff are struggling to care for someone. However, just one in six organisations have policies in place to help carers achieve a better balance between their home and working lives. 

Cancer can be a fluctuating illness, with long cycles of treatment, often requiring outpatient appointments. Carers of people with cancer may need time off work at short notice. Side effects and symptoms can also persist after treatment is over, so the need for flexibility may remain for some time. A line manager trying to balance the needs of the individual with the requirements of the business can find this a real challenge.

Macmillan at Work

Training or consultancy can help organisations prepare their staff to manage the impact of long term conditions. Following a Macmillan Work and Cancer session at House of Fraser, Annie Rallison, Employee Relations Adviser, says “there’s less of a taboo about cancer now amongst line managers”.Macmillan at work

Macmillan at Work is designed to help workplaces support employees with a cancer diagnosis, or those caring for someone with cancer. To find out about the expert training, guidance and resources Macmillan provides, visit macmillan.org.uk/atwork

You can also email the team at [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725.

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