How to Support an Employee Who Has Just Received a Cancer Diagnosis

  • Occupational Health
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Peninsula Team, Peninsula Team

(Last updated )

Follow this guide to understand the best HR and Health & Safety practices on how to support employees affected by cancer.

Maybe you’ve been in this situation before, or maybe it’s the first time.

Your employee has asked if they can speak to you privately. They tell you they’ve received their test results and it’s confirmed. They have cancer.

They may need your support to help them in work while they undergo treatment. And, understandably, you want to learn how best to do this.

Taking steps to support employees after a cancer diagnosis is essential to your duty of care. It also reduces the risk of them feeling like they have no choice but to leave work. And by actively prioritising staff wellbeing, you not only build trust in your working relationships – but you also help create a happier and healthier workplace overall.

So to avoid any uncertainty and misstep, follow this guide to understand the HR and Health & Safety best practices on how to support employees affected by cancer. From having that first conversation to navigating return to work plans, here’s what you need to know.

Arrange to have an informal welfare meeting

After your employee has told you about their cancer diagnosis, the first thing you should do is arrange to have an informal meeting. It seems obvious but you should have this conversation with your employee in private, without risk of interruption.

You should remind your employee that they can bring a friend, family member, or colleague to join them in this meeting for emotional support.

You may find that your employee wants to talk a lot about their diagnosis and your meeting runs over. Or, your employee might be less talkative and there may be periods of silence throughout the conversation. Make allowances for both scenarios and let your employee take the lead.

You want to keep this conversation as natural and genuine as possible, so avoid planning too much ahead of the meeting. However, you may want to prepare some key questions and talking points, like ideas of ways you can support your employee (which we’ll touch more on later).

Understand the dos and don’ts for having that first conversation

Cancer charity Macmillan offers useful guidance about supporting people with cancer, as well as how to navigate that first conversation with your employee about their diagnosis. The conversation might become overwhelming for your employee. You’re dealing with a very sensitive and upsetting topic. So if they do become tearful, it’s important that you stay calm and collected.

Offer them a tissue and show that you are actively listening to what they have to say. Nodding and providing verbal affirmations like ‘I understand’ or ‘that must be very difficult for you’ can help your employee feel more at ease.

Avoid using phrases like ‘look on the bright side” or ‘things will work out’. You may have good intentions but it’s best not to try to offer advice or comments about what might happen. You may want to share stories if you know anyone who has (or has had) cancer – but make sure you don’t offer any judgment on the situation yourself.

Instead, keep the focus of the conversation on how your employee is feeling. Find out the recommended advice from their doctor or medical professional. This information will be helpful for you when you’re deciding on support options.

Prepare to share with other staff

When it feels appropriate, ask your employee if they want you to tell their colleagues about the diagnosis. They might want you to do it or they might want to do it themselves.

Or, they might not want to share at all. Give your employee the choice and don’t tell anyone without getting consent first.

If you are telling other staff members on your employee’s behalf, agree beforehand on what details to share and what to exclude.

If at any point your employee seems too distressed to continue the conversation, offer to take a break or pause and resume the meeting at a later date.

Request a medical report (with your employee’s consent)

You may need to obtain a medical report of your employee’s condition from a health professional or occupational health expert.

But do make sure to ask your employee if it’s okay for you to have this information first.

If your employee gives their consent, you can then arrange for a medical report. Once you have the report, look over the findings.

The report should outline any reasonable adjustments you should make for your employee at work, which we cover in more depth below.

Understand what the law requires

Under the Equality Act 2010, cancer falls under the ‘disability’ protected characteristic. Meaning, you cannot discriminate against someone because they have cancer.

This applies to recruitment, the terms of their employment, or any promotion opportunities.

You could be discriminating without realising. It’s why, to put it in employment law terms, you should make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to remove any potential barriers for your employee in work.

Otherwise, they could raise a discrimination claim against you.

Consider what reasonable adjustments you can make

Employees with cancer are likely to have regular doctor and hospital appointments that fall within working hours.

And if your employee is having chemotherapy, they might go through periods of feeling tired and unwell.

An example of a reasonable adjustment might be offering flexible working, so your employee can:

  • Work from home (either full-time or a few days a week)
  • Adjust their working hours (so they can work around their appointments / when they’re not feeling well enough)
  • Job share (so they can split their work responsibilities with a colleague)
  • Reduce their working hours (so they have more time to rest / there’s less risk of them burning out).
  • Change their duties (for example, switching from heavy lifting to admin work).
  • Have more regular and longer breaks.

You may also need to make physical changes if necessary.

Begin making changes to your workplace

Once you've assessed what adjustments need making, it's time to make the changes to your workplace.

It might be a good idea to set up an established quiet space for your employee to go to. They can use this whenever they need to go for a breather or make and receive sensitive phone calls.

And if your employee has to travel up a long flight of stairs to get to their workstation, make sure you have a functioning lift. In some cases, it may be best to move them to the ground floor. You should also make sure your workplace provides easy access for wheelchair or crutch users – and that you have disabled toilet facilities.

Other physical changes might involve providing voice-activated software to take away the need for typing on a computer and providing a parking space nearer to the entrance of your workplace. Once you agree on the changes your employee might need, you should decide on a review period. Then, you can evaluate whether the measures are helpful and if you may need to add more.

Direct your employee to any support you have to offer

It’s vital to make sure your employee knows about the support options available to them in work. Be mindful of the emotional impact the diagnosis may have, as well as the physical. So, point your employee in the direction of your employee assistance programme (if you have one).

An EAP service offers staff third-party expert wellbeing support. This allows them to access face-to-face counselling, telephone advice, and more. So, your employee can get help from qualified professionals.

The service is free of charge for them and totally confidential.

And even if you don’t have your own employee wellbeing service, it’s a good idea to signpost your employee to external organisations that offer specialist support.

Review policies, procedures, and targets

You might notice your employee’s performance and attendance begin to drop after the diagnosis. It’s important to accommodate this as much as you can. Your employee may not feel well enough or mentally able to face work some days.

You may want to adjust your employee’s performance targets and make sure your company’s sickness and absence policies are up to date. You’ll need to manage and keep track of when your employee is off work and the reason behind it. That means making a note of when your employee is off for hospital appointments and sick days.

You may want to keep this absence reporting separate from your other absence reports, and consider making changes to your procedure for your employee where necessary. For example, if your policy says that an employee who’s off sick should get in touch every day, you could change this to once a week.

Check your policies to see:

  • How you deal with time off for medical appointments.
  • Your rules around sick pay (whether you offer statutory sick pay or enhanced company sick pay).
  • How often you’ll keep in touch while your employee is off work.

Set up a critical illness policy

You may also want to consider whether you would like to enhance your employee’s sick pay or offer paid leave to attend medical appointments.

Plus, whether you need to consider other forms of leave, like compassionate leave.

If you don’t already have one, it may be worth setting up a critical illness policy to help set a protocol for supporting employees who have serious illnesses in your workplace.

Providing training for your line managers and HR teams may help them feel confident to offer support for affected employees at the various stages of their cancer journey.

Create a return to work plan

Your employee may not be well enough to attend work while they receive treatment, so they may have to take long-term sick leave. After some time, your employee might be ready to come back to work. They might need help readjusting to the routines of their normal life, so ensure you prepare for their return properly.

Taking steps to help make this transition that little bit easier is vital. One way to do this might be to create a phased return to work. This may help you avoid the risk of overwhelming your employee while they’re in recovery.

Your employee might find that they still have side effects from their cancer treatment that affect their ability to work. Which is why you should create a return to work plan (but take a flexible approach with this in case you need to make changes).

A return to work plan outlines how your employee can continue working safely. For example, it might detail what changes you have made to the workplace to reduce the risk of harm, such as giving them more breaks.

Sit down with your employee on their return

Before they’re meant to return, organise a meeting with your employee to discuss how they’re doing and update them on what’s been happening at work.

In this meeting, you’ll be able to talk through any issues or concerns. This will help you decide on any changes you need to make either on a temporary or long-term basis to support them.

This might involve allowing your employee to change their hours, responsibilities, and where they work.

An employee whose cancer is in remission still has legal protection. So, you have an obligation to take steps to help your employee return to work.

Help your employee ease back into work

When your employee returns to work, it may feel like they’re starting a new job all over again. So, be careful not to overload them with too much in their first week back.

Prepare an induction plan and help them ease back into the role at a pace that’s comfortable for them.

After that, check in with them regularly to make sure they’re comfortable with the workload and the adjustments you’ve put in place to help them are sufficient.

If your employee’s role has changed in any way or where they’re working has changed, it’s good practice to perform a Health & Safety risk assessment. This will remove or mitigate any potential hazards from the work itself, as well as the working environment.

If your employee’s return seems unlikely, consider other options

If it seems unlikely your employee will be able to return to work in the near future, you may need to consider ending their employment. This should be a final resort after exploring all other alternatives.

If your employee is old enough, they may be able to take an early retirement on the grounds of ill health. This could be an option for them if:

  • Medical advice says they cannot return to work.
  • They’re able to claim a pension.

And if not, you could look at a medical capability dismissal.

If you don’t follow the right steps with this, however, you put yourself at risk of facing discrimination and unfair dismissal claims. So, you should not even consider dismissal unless you have a justifiable reason as to why you’re unable to continue employing them.

Be prepared for every outcome

In the event that your employee’s cancer is terminal, you should have a procedure for this written in your sickness policy.

It should outline how you’ll support your employee in ending their role, which may involve offering financial support.

Or, in circumstances where your employee may not have long to live, you might decide not to put them through the process of medical capability assessments and meetings.

Instead, you might let them continue their employment, while offering support where you can.

Don’t be afraid to seek occupational health advice

If you want to understand more about providing workplace support for employees with cancer, you may want to consult a healthcare professional to understand how best to manage absences, risk assessments, and return-to-work strategies during this difficult time.

You may also find the following useful:

And if you have any questions, tap below to speak to a Health & Safety expert today for free.


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