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Five common misconceptions about Cancer at work

In the UK, there are currently 900,000 people of working age living with cancer, and the impressive increase in survival rates (in the UK cancer survival for 10 or more years has doubled from 24% to 50%)  means that it’s becoming more likely that employers will have staff members facing a cancer diagnosis.

We’ve all heard the statistics, but that doesn’t make them any less frightening: half of us will face a cancer diagnosis during our lifetime. Contributor Barbara Wilson, ex-HR director and founder – Working with Cancer.

In the UK, there are currently 900,000 people of working age living with cancer, and the impressive increase in survival rates (in the UK cancer survival for 10 or more years has doubled from 24% to 50%)  means that it’s becoming more likely that employers will have staff members facing a cancer diagnosis, undergoing treatment, and returning to work following treatment.  

With that in mind, it’s essential that HR directors understand how to help employees facing cancer. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the consequences of getting it wrong can have significant financial and legal consequences. 

However, in the course of the training, coaching and general support we provide to employers and cancer patients, we see time and again that vital information is misunderstood and legislation overlooked. For example, far too many employers are unaware that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they are classed as disabled and are therefore protected by the Equality Act 2010, (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland). This protection continues after treatment has ended, even if employees move to a different job. It lasts forever. As a result it’s illegal to treat an employee less favourably because they have cancer. 

Too many employees with cancer are left feeling that they can’t or shouldn’t be at work, which can cause huge financial and emotional strain on top of managing the illness itself. 

In my experience employers almost always want to help. The problems start with misunderstanding and poor communication. So what are the most common misconceptions and mistakes that line managers and HR teams make when managing someone with cancer? 

1. Too ill to work?
The truth is that most people can work throughout cancer treatment, even those who are terminally ill. Many people want to keep working – of course there’s a financial imperative, but beyond that work represents a welcome dose of normality while cancer takes over every other aspect of someone’s life.  

However according to Macmillan, although 80% of people who were working when diagnosed with cancer thought it important to continue working, 47% had to give up work or change their roles as a result of their diagnosis. This doesn’t need to be the case. HR  directors and their teams should advise line managers and team leaders on the adjustments they can make and the flexibility they can offer to help someone stay at work – a shorter working day, more breaks, a temporary change in duties, there are many ways to help. 

However well intended, simply telling an employee to stay off work until treatment is over can actually have a negative impact on their recovery.

2. Problematic policies
I’d be willing to bet that your sickness policy wasn’t written with cancer in mind. HR teams should review their policies to ascertain whether they’d be effective for someone facing cancer. For example, it can easily take someone a year to recover from chemotherapy, so the standard 12 week phased return to work simply won’t be enough in  most cases. 

Alongside a‘fit for purpose’ policy, an HR director should ensure that line managers are trained so they are properly equipped and confident enough to manage someone with cancer, and know when and how to seek help

3. Poor communication
This is where so many problems begin for cancer patients at work. Good communication is absolutely vital. Every single cancer case is different, and it’s HR’s job to take the time to understand each individual case. 

Employees may have faced a barrage of tests in the run up to a diagnosis, they may not want to share with colleagues why they are off work, they may find it hard to talk about cancer at all. Alternatively, they might find that talking helps them and that the support of their colleagues makes a world of difference to their recovery. Given each occurrence of cancer is different, then an individual’s response to it will vary hugely as well. You can’t make assumptions.

With this in mind, employers must talk to their employee regularly and openly about the adjustments they can make to help someone stay at work, or get back to work, and provide encouragement and reassurance if and when an employee hits a difficult patch.

4. Overlooking cancer’s ripple effect
A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just impact the patient. Cancer affects spouses, partners, parents, children and friends, and employers would do well to remember this. 

In fact, carers in paid employment are also protected against direct discrimination, discrimination by association with a person with cancer, and harassment at work. Employers do not have to make reasonable adjustments for carers but other legislation provides the right to time off work in some circumstances, or to apply to work flexibly, in order to help employees manage their caring responsibilities.

5. Getting ‘back to normal’
The simple truth is that after cancer treatment, there is no getting ‘back’ to normal. Instead, patients face a new normal where they may look very different, they’ll certainly feel it and the fear of the cancer returning will often be in their thoughts. 

How this translates into someone’s experiences at work will depend on the individual, but they’ll need to know they have their employer’s support in the long term. Just because someone is back at work and physically in better shape, the mental and physical scars last a long time.

A cancer diagnosis can be terrifying, but the right support from an employer can make a huge difference. For the employer it makes clear financial sense to help someone to stay at work during and after an illness. It will also foster goodwill throughout an organisation, but more importantly than all that, it could help someone facing devastating news to get on the road to recovery.

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