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The right support can make all the difference for people returning to work after cancer treatment.

With one in two people in the UK expected to develop cancer over their lifetimes, cancer is now an unavoidable issue for employers. In the UK, more than a third of those living with cancer – around 750,000 people – are of working age. By 2030, this figure is expected to rise to 1.7m.

As medical technology advances over the next decade, more and more people will be working while experiencing chronic conditions. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for employers.

Many people whose working lives would previously have been ended by their diagnosis can now expect to return to work. Research by the Institution of Safety and Health at Work shows that up to 84% of people with cancer return to work.  Around two-thirds of people are back in work, 2-3 years after being diagnosed.

This is a good outcome both for employers and employees. In many cases, work can improve patient outcomes by offering stability, social contact and income. Organisations in turn can benefit by:

  • retaining valued experience and expertise
  • reducing turnover and recruitment costs
  • increasing staff engagement

Sadly, many employees with cancer face obstacles to a successful, long-term return; even if their health remains good. People can struggle to meet the demands of their role, or face awkwardness from colleagues not sure what to say. Some find that their sick pay entitlement has been changed or reduced; or that their employers are reluctant to make adaptations to their role to help them continue working.

So how can your organisation’s line managers best support employees with cancer? How should they approach discussions with team members on such a sensitive topic? What sort of support or adjustments might be necessary? And do you have the right HR policies in place to help your line managers do this? Some simple steps can go a long way to meeting these challenges.

Five ways to support employees with cancer

1. Good communication

Equip your line managers to feel more confident in tackling difficult issues with sensitivity. For example, by letting employees with cancer lead conversations about their condition and giving them the chance to bring a colleague or a friend to any meetings about their health. This may make it easier to tackle sensitive and difficult issues.

Specialised training for line managers (see 4 below) will help both parties feel more comfortable talking about the situation. And it’ll make it easier to address issues such as adjustments to help them return to work on a sustainable basis.

2. Understanding the impact of cancer on employees

Before they can offer effective support, line managers need to understand some of the ways cancer can affect employees. Pain and fatigue are common, but may not be obvious to colleagues, or the employee may try to conceal the signs. They may be experiencing other problems, such as depression, problems with thinking and reasoning, or even have issues with their vision or balance.

Macmillan has put together specialist advice on cancer for employers, plus a useful set of tips for line managers. By using such resources, your line managers will become more aware of the psychological and emotional difficulties faced by employees with cancer, as well as their physical symptoms.

3. Making workplace adjustments for employees with cancer

It’s important for line managers and returning employees to discuss any necessary workplace adaptations, such as flexible working hours, to increase the chance of a successful return. Many managers worry it will be hard to make such changes, but a 2016 YouGov survey showed nearly 70% of line managers found it easy to make adjustments. HR departments can help by ensuring line managers are familiar with the options for workplace adjustments, as well as the process for requesting them.

Occupational health services, whether provided in-house, external providers, or the NHS Health at Work service, can also help advise line managers on suitable workplace adjustments.

4. Creating HR policies around cancer at work

Developing a policy or guidelines can help managers support employees with cancer. This both sends out a signal to your organisation about its approach to helping colleagues with cancer, and gives line managers a framework for action.

Given that 1 in 2 of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives, it’s perhaps surprising that 73% of UK employers don’t have a formal policy or guidelines for managing employees diagnosed with cancer. Macmillan and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development have also produced a joint report, Managing cancer in the workplace, together with advice on developing workplace policies for cancer. The Macmillan at work programme contains specialist training and resources for HR professionals and line managers. You can build elements of all of these into training programmes for line managers.

5. Supporting employees to return to work

Employees with cancer returning to work will often need time to rebuild their confidence – particularly after the trauma of diagnosis or a long period away on sick leave. Early support for, and engagement with, employees with cancer from HR and line managers is vital. Evidence suggests it’s helpful for most people with cancer to start thinking about their return to work in the first few weeks of sick leave. Make sure you have the appropriate support measures in place, or many of your employees will struggle to remain in the workplace.

Making a difference for employees with cancer

Many people give up work or change jobs because they struggle to manage the consequences of cancer and treatment. But you and your line managers can make a big difference. By encouraging and supporting staff in your workplace, you’ll retain skilled expertise and knowledge, and generate a positive image for customers and potential employees. There’s good evidence, too, that work has a positive impact on cancer patients’ health and recovery – the best outcome of all.