How Your Employment May Be Affected By Cancer

Whilst some people continue to work during and after their treatment, for others, this is not an option. You may need time off for treatment or follow up, need assistance in your current job or may feel that you can no longer work. You may also have questions and concerns about applying or starting a new job and how your cancer journey may affect your chances of getting a job and also undertaking a new role.

It’s important that you discuss your condition with your workplace and find out what options they have in place and to know your legal rights surrounding the workplace. The Equality Act ensures you have the right to negotiate for reasonable changes in your work or workplace, and offers legal protection if you feel you have been treated unfairly by your employer.

1. When do I have to tell my current employer that I have cancer?

You do not “have to” tell your employer that you have cancer; however, having an open and honest dialogue with your employer about your condition is usually the best way forward, so that you can be properly supported throughout your treatment. If you are worried about how your employer will react, not telling them will not help to relieve that worry and may make you feel worse. Most employers will be supportive once they understand the situation. Your employer will almost certainly be aware that something is wrong and understanding the reason for this allows them to respond appropriately.

When to have this discussion is a personal choice – some people prefer to wait until they are fully aware of their diagnosis and treatment plan; others prefer to make their employer aware at an earlier stage, knowing that they do not have all of the information but want to get the diagnosis out in the open. It can take several weeks to be fully informed about a diagnosis and treatment plan and this may require multiple absences from work.

2. How can I prepare for going back to work?

You are the best person to know what is right for you, so be prepared to ask your employer for what you feel needs to happen to support your return to work. Talk to your doctors about what sort of return to work plan would be helpful for you. It may include reduced days/reduced hours/adjustments to the work content. As you have had a cancer diagnosis, you are covered (forever) by the Equality Act 2010. A cancer diagnosis means that you are classed as having a permanent disability (for employment purposes) and are protected under employment legislation. Employers are legally required not to discriminate against you on the grounds of that “disability” and the effects of having cancer. They are also required by law to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace that allow you to work; these may be temporary or permanent, depending upon your needs.

Also be prepared to discuss with your employer how long the initial adjustments might last and set regular review dates. It is important that you and your employer have a shared understanding that you will not necessarily know yourself how you are going to feel once you have returned to work. Therefore, be prepared to be flexible. Do not put yourself under unnecessary pressure by setting unrealistic goals or by being reluctant to admit that you need to change your return to work to plan to accommodate how you are feeling. Returning to work is a process, not an event and that process can be variable and unexpected.

Return to work checklist

Prepare and discuss with your employer a return to work plan:

  • Reduced or flexible hours/days
  • Temporary changes to duties
  • Short breaks
  • Time off for medical appointments
  • What to tell colleagues etc.
  • Have regular reviews
  • Discuss temporary work arrangements, and when you want to end them
  • Be clear with your manager about how you feel talking about cancer
  • Be prepared for good and bad days
3. Should I tell my future employers I have cancer or not?

This will very much depend upon your personal circumstances. Has cancer or the treatments left you requiring some adjustments in the workplace e.g. easy access to toilet facilities? Is there a significant gap on your CV that needs to be explained? You are protected by law (the Equality Act 2010) not to be discriminated against because you have had cancer. This means that decisions in the workplace such as recruitment or training cannot be negatively influenced by knowledge of your cancer diagnosis or the effects of the subsequent treatment. Often it will be better to be upfront with a new employer, especially if you have long-term side effects that may impact on your working life. Conversely, if you are fully recovered from your cancer treatment and there are no side effects that impact on your working life, then you may feel that there is no need to disclose your cancer diagnosis. Recruiting employers who follow good practice should not ask questions about your health at the interview stage. Post-employment health questions may be asked in relation to benefits like private health insurance or pension, which are valid, however, if you mention that you have had cancer, you are protected by law against any discriminatory action based on your cancer diagnosis.

4. What support can my employers offer me after cancer?

Employers are legally obliged to make “reasonable adjustments” to allow you to return to work. The exact nature of these will be determined by your personal circumstances- they may cover a “return to work” plan that includes reduced working hours on a temporary basis, or more long-term adjustments if your cancer or treatments have left you with long-term impacts on your everyday life. There is no legal definition of “reasonable” and you will need to explain to your employer what will help you return to work. What is “reasonable” for a large employer to provide may be different to what a small employer might be expected to do, so what is possible will depend upon your exact circumstances. However, the legal obligation to make what is deemed “reasonable adjustments” rests with all employers.

Your employer may have certain benefits that they offer employees that you can take advantage of, if needed, like counselling services. Make sure that you are aware of all of these benefits as you may not have considered them useful to you prior to your cancer diagnosis.

5. What are reasonable adjustments?

There is no legal definition of “reasonable adjustments” and if there is a dispute, then the courts would decide what is reasonable given the specific circumstances. Be bold when asking for what you feel you need and be prepared to negotiate with your employer. You should assume that your employer will not understand what will help you return to work and so be prepared to explain to them and ask for the adjustments that will be helpful to you. The resources available to the employer will affect how they respond and you should expect more from a large corporation than a small employer.

6. Should I ask for a phased return to work or should my employer just offer one?

If you have been away from work for some time, a phased return is usually, if not always, a good idea. Do not assume that your employer will understand what is best for you and be prepared to explain and ask for what you feel you will need. Some employers who have their own occupational health services may well volunteer a phased return to work but some won’t because it would not occur to them. The longer-term side effects of cancer are often not well understood by those who have not experienced it and therefore the onus will usually be on you to inform and make the request for a phased return to work. Your doctors should be able to help you put together a plan. Also, you can ask your GP as the NHS is now offering occupational health services to help people return to work after illness.

7. I can’t take on the same workload I previously had, however, I don’t want to be treated differently because I had cancer. What is the best way to deal with this?

This is a complex question that is very difficult to answer without understanding the specific circumstances. If you feel that you cannot take on the same workload following cancer, then you will need to discuss this with your employer. How far your employer can agree with what you are asking and how “reasonable” the adjustments are that you are requesting will depend on the specific circumstances. Prepare for the discussion by thinking about how the workload could be managed if you are giving up some part of it. A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event and following this, many people talk about a “new” normal after cancer, which is different to how things were before the diagnosis and it is inevitable that this will impact many areas of a person’s life.

8. What alternatives do I have to take legal action if I am being discriminated against?

Raise your concerns in writing with your line manager or HR, if your employer has a dedicated HR department. If you do not get a satisfactory response, raise the issue in writing to a higher-level manager. If you still do not receive a satisfactory response, raise a formal grievance using your employer’s grievance procedure. All employers are required to have a formal grievance procedure and must inform you about it. The information on the ACAS will help you put together your complaint and you can also call them for advice.