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Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis

BY Lee Craig
Health & Safety
BG Orange

My husband was talking to me the other day about a colleague who is currently working while under-going a gruelling second round of chemotherapy.  When I asked how the health and safety team were supporting her, he shrugged his shoulders and while I have no doubt that her managers and colleagues are very aware of her needs and supporting her as best they can the question regarding the role of the employer remains.

Health and Safety law specifically draws our attention to those who may be more vulnerable or at risk in the workplace.  Examples include children and young people; new and expectant mothers and those with disabilities.  But how often do we stop to consider our responsibilities to employees who may want to continue to work through serious illness, including cancer and its treatment; and how robust are the interfaces between the HR and health and safety responsible persons remains when it comes to supporting employees?

A new report commissioned by Institute of Safety and Health addresses specifically the health and safety implications of employees returning to work after a cancer diagnosis.  The scale of the issue is significant. Around 330,000 adults in the UK are diagnosed with cancer every year with one person in three living with cancer in the UK being of working age. 

A Macmillan Cancer Support survey of more than 1,000 people, all in work when diagnosed, indicated that 14% gave up work or were made redundant as a result of their illness, while 15% returned before they felt ready. This suggests that some employers face a difficult balancing act between enabling employees to return, or to keep working through their treatment if they wish, and not pushing the rehabilitation process too far or too fast.

Key to achieving the right balance for both employees and employers are two concepts: reasonable adjustment and risk assessment. Under the UK’s Equality Act 2010, a worker who has cancer has a disability and is protected from discrimination from the point of diagnosis. The employer must make reasonable adjustments to any elements of the job that place the individual at a substantial disadvantage or it could face an employment tribunal claim for disability discrimination.

Employers have an important role to play in assessing risks to employees with cancer and making adjustments so that they can safely stay at work or make a phased return and can bring to the rehabilitation process experience of risk assessments that are both “individualised” and reviewed regularly. Of course making adjustments will be more challenging and complex in some situations than in others and the report includes advice and practical suggestions to support the best outcomes for the employee who wants to work through their illness and treatment.

Liz Egan, the Working through Cancer programme lead at Macmillan Cancer Support, says: “Supporting staff in the right way has business benefits. It can help you retain knowledgeable staff, save on recruitment and training costs, foster loyalty and drive a positive image of the company both to customers and potential employees.”

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