“It’s a sad fact that one in three of us will develop cancer during our lifetime.  For those in employment, being diagnosed with cancer will inevitably impact on working life, including the need to take time off work to recover and/or undergo treatment. In some instances, an employee may be unable to return to the role that they previously carried out or to work at all.

“Any cancer diagnosis automatically results in an employee being classed as having a ‘disability’. The law protects employees from being discriminated and/or being treated less favourably because of their disability. It is vital that employers understand the legal position and the duties which are owed to employees with a disability, which includes an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to a role to assist an employee to return/remain in the workplace.

“While much is made of the huge emotional impact of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and this is of course not to be downplayed, there are also important practical implications that need to be addressed as soon as possible from an employee’s perspective, which may assist them through such a difficult time.

Following a diagnosis, the employee is likely to have many work-related anxieties including a fear of whether they will still be able to do their job, job security, the need to take time off work for treatment/recovery and their associated entitlement to sick pay. Such issues are often a source of worry for employees in addition to the financial strain of potentially having little or no income during any absence that takes place whilst treatment is ongoing.

By understanding the legal framework and adopting a proactive and supportive approach, employers can ensure they do not add to the distress of an employee following diagnosis.  Such an approach can in fact build a strong bond between employer and employee and a sense of loyalty from the employee on the back of having seen how their employer has been there for them since their diagnosis and beyond. Other staff are also likely to notice how the employer has treated the worker during such a difficult time which can only help foster good morale and industrial relations.

It is vital that both the employer and the employee work together from the point of diagnosis to make the situation as easy as possible for both parties right from the start. Communication between employee and employer is therefore key.

“For the employer, it is really important to get an understanding of the diagnosis and to give the employee confidence that they are adopting a caring approach.  Difficult as it may be, empathy with what the employee is going through is paramount, as well as gaining the confidence of the employee to be up front about the likely impact on their work, supported by the advice of the relevant medical professionals. A supportive approach based around good communication can reduce an employee’s anxiety. Being open and proactive is likely to help the employee stay in work or return to work at the right time and enable the employer to manage and accommodate any impact on the workplace.

“One key piece of advice from my experience for all employers is that everyone is different, and the way they deal with their diagnosis will vary from person to person.

“By working out a tailored communication plan early on, an employer can establish if the employee wants colleagues and clients to be informed of their illness, and if so, who should do it.  Employees do have a right to privacy in this situation so it’s very important that employers find out what message their employee would like conveyed to colleagues who will inevitably guess ‘something is up’ or face a knock-on effect of any absences or adjustments necessary to accommodate the employee concerned.

“Employees are of course not obliged to inform their employer if they have cancer, but the employer’s knowledge following diagnosis will mean that the employee is protected in law from being discriminated because of their diagnosis. It certainly helps both sides of the employment relationship if the employer can promote and be known to operate an open-door policy and supportive environment which will give staff the confidence to share their news and work collaboratively with their employer.

“Often just mention of the ‘c’ word has people running for cover, but employers should not bury their heads in the sand.  Employers can prepare for any eventuality in the workplace via their handbook/staff policies, or otherwise provide the open policy of communication which will give employees the confidence to be up front about issues which are likely to impact on the workplace.   Should an employee find themselves in such a situation of receiving a cancer diagnosis, then an early and proactive response from their employer will inevitably ease the burden on the employee concerned, ultimately making life easier for all, which will in turn maximise the prospects of the employee fairing up to and successfully fighting the disease.

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