How to tackle workplace discrimination against people with cancer

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For those going through an illness such as cancer, discrimination can unfortunately be a very real and stressful part of their experience. This is despite the fact that if you have or have had cancer, you are protected by law from unfair treatment at work.

Research from Macmillan Cancer Support, exploring the impact of cancer on working life, found that nearly a fifth of people (18%) who return to work after being diagnosed with cancer say they faced discrimination from their employer or colleagues. In addition, more than a third (35%) report other negative experiences, such as feeling guilty for taking time off, or a loss of confidence in their ability to do their job.

Worryingly, 1 in 7 (15%) say they returned to work ‘before they felt ready’, while 14% of people gave up work altogether or were made redundant because of their diagnosis.

It is therefore key that HR professionals and line managers have the skills to support staff affected by cancer. It is also vital that employers fulfil their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments, enabling employees with cancer to stay in or return to work, if they want to.

Cathy’s experience

For Cathy, who went through treatment for bowel cancer, her return to work following cancer was not the positive experience it should’ve been. She says:

Unfortunately, my employer at the time wasn't understanding or supportive,’ says Cathy “I was made to work long hours, given impossible deadlines and an unfair contract. I walked out of that role, had a breakdown, and was signed off by my GP with workplace stress.

On the positive side, Macmillan supported me throughout and really helped make a difference. They gave me advice on returning to work and my legal rights. I was also sent the Macmillan work and cancer toolkit to take to my employer.

Because of the information from Macmillan, I took my employer to court and managed to win a case for discrimination. Without the information they gave me, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the one positive to come out of everything.

Lisa’s experience

Many employers aren’t aware that a person with cancer is covered by the Equality Act (2010) from point of diagnosis for the rest of their lives – even after treatment has ended. It is important that employers and employees are aware of this, and that reasonable adjustments are implemented to support employees with cancer.

Having conversations about rights at work can ensure steps are taken to avoid discrimination.

For Lisa – who underwent treatment for endometrial cancer – getting support in the workplace in her job at the time was initially very challenging, however by having knowledge about her rights she now has the confidence to ask for the support she may require. She says:

My cancer brought on other health conditions. I was expecting to slip back into how things were when I returned to work but I was totally side-lined and all the responsibilities I had before cancer were taken away. The way I was treated knocked me for six. I felt suicidal and had to have counselling.

I went to Macmillan after my diagnosis and they were fantastic, giving me lots of advice and support. I was sent the Essential Work and Cancer toolkit to give to my employer, as my manager had never managed anyone with cancer.

I found out from Macmillan about the Equality Act 2010, which protects people with a disability, including cancer, from being treated unfairly. While I cannot change my former manager’s attitude towards my cancer I now feel stronger to tackle it going forward. Macmillan made me realise I am able to grasp my life back.

Does your business have a cancer-specific policy?

To ensure that a company’s HR team and line managers are aware of the support they can give to employees, employers could take steps to introduce a cancer-specific policy. Alternatively, they could review existing policies to ensure they can be easily interpreted and applied to people with long-term conditions such as cancer.

It’s important that these policies are up to date and regularly reviewed to meet the latest requirements.

If there isn’t an existing policy around cancer, there are several reasons why it would be beneficial to have a cancer policy, which means an organisation can:

  • Reassure employees that they are valued

  • Meet the legal responsibilities as an employer under the Equality Act 2010 (or Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland)

  • Provide a framework for supporting employees affected by cancer

  • Provide guidance to managers

  • Alert managers and staff to sources of information and guidance

  • Ensure that all employees are treated fairly and consistently

  • Enhance the company’s reputation as a good employer

Helpful resources

Macmillan at Work have a range of model policy templates that can be used to support people affected by cancer in the workplace. These include:

  • Cancer policy template: A template for HR teams to develop a company policy for handling cancer in the workplace. Download the cancer policy template.
  • Carers' policy template: A template for HR teams to develop a company policy for supporting staff who are caring for someone with a long-term condition. Download the carers' policy template.
  • Buddying guidelines: Guidelines developed alongside employers and people affected by cancer, designed to help organisations implement a buddying system in the workplace. Download the buddying guidelines.

If you have any questions, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.

About Michelle Griffiths

Michelle Griffiths

Michelle is the Development Manager for Macmillan at Work, which provides support for HR professionals and Line Managers to help them feel equipped and confident in supporting employees affected by cancer.

If you have any questions about work and cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support is here to help. If you would like more help on how to support employees affected by cancer, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/atwork, email [email protected] or call 020 7840 4725 to find out more about our support.

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