Cancer in the Workplace

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Health Assured team

15 September 2022

Cancer is a disease that can affect most of us in our lifetime. You might know a relative with cancer; or have a cancer diagnosis yourself.

As employers, you need to be able to support employees who have shared their cancer diagnosis with you. You aren't expected to help cure them or provide treatment; but you do have legal obligations for their welfare.

If not, you could end up making their condition worse. And this type of negligence can lead to increased turnover, compensation penalties, and even tribunal attendance.

In this guide, we'll look at what cancer is, UK laws on managing it, and how to support employees affected by the illness.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease which causes some of the body's cells to grow uncontrollably. When this happens, they can spread to other areas–causing them to stop working in their natural, biological way.

Research shows around 900,000 people of working age live with cancer (according to The Institute of Employment Studies and Working with Cancer, 2022).

Some of the most common cancers recorded include:

  • Breast cancer.
  • Lung and bronchus cancer.
  • Prostate and ovarian cancer.
  • Colon and rectum cancer.
  • Melanoma (skin) cancer.

Many people living with cancer choose to work as it can be a means of distraction or normality for them. Others choose to return after being given the 'all-clear'. It's vital to focus on providing support, training, and adjustments when dealing with cancer patients at work.

What jobs can increase the risk of cancer?

There are certain fields which exasperate workplace cancer risks. These employees become exposed to higher risks due to the nature of their job.

Here are some examples of high cancer-risk jobs:

  • Agriculture, forestry, and fishing: Exposure to cancer-risk chemicals (like pesticides) and long-sun exposure, which is linked to melanoma (skin cancer).
  • Manufacturing and mining: Exposure to airborne respirable dust, which is linked to numerous cancer-causing toxins.
  • Construction and painting: Exposure to asbestos, silica, and Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions (DEEE), which is linked to lung and other cancers.
  • Certain night-shift jobs: Chronic disruptions to natural circadian rhythms (life-sustaining processes, like breathing, digestion, and sleep), which is linked to cardiac-related cancer.

What are UK laws on managing cancer in the workplace?

Every business has a legal responsibility to protect people in their organisation. Employee health and safety is paramount–from when they clock in, to the day they leave their company.

Here are laws which highlight legal obligations for employees living with cancer:

  • The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974: This act states your legal duty to protect the health (including mental health), safety and welfare of all employees.
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: This act requires you to support workplace safety, provide training, and conduct risk assessments in the workplace.
  • The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002: This act outlines methods for managing workplace substances that could potentially harm or cause ill-health. (These require individual COSHH assessments and H&S training).

Other lawful regulations are highlighted by The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Public Health England (PHE). Both governing bodies provide resources on the prevention and management of cancer risks at work.

Can cancer account for a disability?

Under UK employment laws, cancer automatically counts as a disability. The Equality Act 2010 states a disability must:

  1. Have a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on their daily life.
  2. Last at least 12 months (or is expected to).
  3. Effect their ability to do normal activities.

For employers, this means you cannot discriminate against anyone with cancer. This is because disability is a legally protected characteristic under equality laws.

Employees must receive the same workplace opportunities as others. For example, career development, training options, and promotional opportunities.

They also have a legal right to gain additional support through reasonable adjustments. These are work changes which focus on things like:

  • Changing work hours to something more suitable.
  • Amending workloads and objectives.
  • Reassigning job roles (temporarily or permanently).
  • Providing additional work equipment and resources.
  • Allowing flexible working (like hybrid or part-time).

These changes can be made within reason for your company. This is so it doesn't cause a drastic, negative impact to your revenue or productivity.

Can you dismiss an employee with cancer?

Under the Equality Act 2010, you cannot dismiss an employee solely on their disability.

Sometimes, a dismissal is deemed unfair because an employee has acquired legal protection due to their service years or contractual terms. But when an employee has cancer, they are automatically protected against unfair dismissal. And this starts from the minute they present their diagnosis, right through to recoveries and remissions.

If an employee believes they've suffered from unfair treatment relating to their cancer, they could raise their claim to the employment tribunals. If courts find you guilty of discrimination, you could be forced to pay compensation fees.

If the employee is unable to work–causing loss of production or revenue–tribunal courts may deem dismissal as a reasonable outcome.

How to support employees with cancer in the workplace

At any given time, cancer can affect our livelihoods through unexpected and impactful ways. You might suddenly need to become a carer for family members; or you may have been given an early diagnosis for a particular cancer.

When workers open up about a cancer diagnosis or treatment, you need to take positive action from the get-go. By doing so, you can help stabilise hard times– allowing them to live and work as comfortably as possible.

Here are ways to support an employee diagnosed with cancer:

Provide support and raise awareness

When an employee mentions their cancer journey, it can bring life to a grinding halt, for both workers and employers. That's why it's important to support staff affected by cancer–raising awareness during difficult times.

During this period, the affected person may have been given numerous medical advice or receive counselling from a registered charity. For an employer, the best step to take is to provide daily support at work.

There is no singular way to support employees affected by cancer. Start by talking to them on an individual capacity and determine how you can help them.

Colleagues, line-managers, and HR professionals may need to be fully aware of their condition, too. But only if it's mutually agreed to by the employee; and if it's reasonable to do so.

Ensure safe working conditions

Managing cancer might seem like a daunting task. But as an employer, you need to make sure vulnerable staff work in the safest conditions.

Hold reasonable adjustments as the high priority for these employees. Change their working conditions after you’ve reached a mutual agreement. And be empathetic if they can't work efficiently. Think about what they could be going through, as no one day is the same. For example, they could be receiving cancer treatment or from struggling from mental strains.

Your work tasks or environment needs to be suitable for them–and not worsen their conditions. Conduct risk assessments which highlight appropriate workplace adjustments for them.

Some employees may decide to continue working despite being diagnosed with cancer. For them, work can provide familiarity or comfort. Others may not be able to afford to stop working. So long as they're medically allowed to work, you should allow them this privilege.

Allow them to take time off from work

When it comes to cancer, people affected by cancer can face several medical issues.

Under UK law, employers should offer a reasonable amount of time off, like sick leave. They may need to attend medical appointments because they’re feeling unwell. Or taking time off to recover from cancer treatment.

When employees request time off from work, be empathetic and provide as much support as you can. Employees may receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) during this time (but only if they’re eligible to paid time-off).

Provide financial benefits

When employees cannot work, they may become eligible for employee benefits.

One of the first benefits to provide is Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Employees receive SSP if they're too sick to work. They may also receive Occupational Sick Pay (also known as company sick pay). This specific amount is usually outlined in employment contracts or employee handbooks.

Outside of the workplace, an employee may also be eligible for other benefits, like:

  • Personal Independence Payment (PIP): They can receive PIP if their cancer counts as a disability, long-term physical, or mental health condition.
  • Disability Living Allowance (DLA): They can receive DLA if their cancer causes them to have mobility problems or require personal treatment.
  • Employment and Support Allowance (ESA): They can receive ESA if their illness or disability affects how much they can work.
  • Attendance Allowance (AA): They can receive AA if they require extra costs to manage cancer-fees (like for carers).
  • Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB): They may receive IIDB if their job specifically caused or accelerated their cancer state.

Offer a return-to-work plan

For some employees, they may request a phased return-to-work plan. This can be initiated after they’ve recovered from cancer, or when their treatment is over.

Employers can implement a plan which allows them to return to their previous position. Or you could both agree on a flexible plan, with suitable reasonable adjustments. For example, line-managers can change specific work responsibilities, or implement appropriate workplace access.

Employers can even offer financial aid to them during this time. Employees could suffer from mortgage or credit agreements. So, communicate with them and establish what advice or help they'll benefit from the most.

What if an employee with cancer decides to give up work?

Some people affected by cancer may decide to give up work altogether. They could stop working because they can't maintain a decent work-life balance. Other times, they might take early retirement, so they can enjoy the rest of their life.

If employees decide to stop working, talk them through their termination options. Follow the correct termination steps and provide information for their retirement. Make sure they receive benefits, like pension rights and sick pay. This can help them cope during tough times, or even help pay for cancer treatment.

Get expert advice on supporting employees with cancer with Health Assured

When it comes to cancer, you must be steadfast in identifying, managing, and eliminating the risks. This can range from providing cancer referrals, to amending tasks with cancerous risks.

Making these steps means employees understand how to gain support during troubling times. If an employer neglects them, you risk worsening their cancer–affecting their welfare, as well as your business's.

Health Assured offers expert advice on supporting employees with cancer. Our teams of HR professionals can help you safeguard employee wellbeing whilst simultaneously meeting your company needs.

We also provide a 24/7 helpline that’s open 365 days a year–helping employers and their company all year round. Arrange a call back for more advice on 0844 891 0352.

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