Blood cancer: what you should know if an employee is diagnosed

Blood cancer
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Managers and HR professionals can play a key role in supporting someone who is living with, or recovering from, blood cancer – so it’s important to know where your responsibilities lie.

This article was co-written by Rose Sunter, Partner specialising in employment law at Sharpe Pritchard LLP and Emily Peters, Patient Information Officer at blood cancer research charity Bloodwise.

Juggling work and cancer is a challenge for anyone – but a blood cancer diagnosis can complicate things even further. Blood cancers include leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Like other cancers, most blood cancers are more common in older people, but they can be diagnosed at any age.

While some blood cancers will require urgent treatment, others will require a longer-term approach – potentially affecting employees for the full length of their careers.

Treatments for blood cancers vary

If your employee is diagnosed with an acute or high-grade (fast-growing) form of blood cancer, they’ll need to take time off work to receive treatment. The length of time they’ll need to spend in hospital, and recover at home, depends on the type and strength of treatment they receive. Recovery from a stem cell transplant, for instance, can take from four to 12 months; sometimes longer.

Not all blood cancers are treated with intensive chemotherapy, however. Depending on their diagnosis, some people can manage their symptoms with daily tablets and continue to work as normal.

‘Watch and wait’

If your employee has been diagnosed with a chronic (slow-developing) blood cancer, they may be placed on a programme of ‘watch and wait’ – which means they will be monitored with regular check-ups and blood tests. More than 15,000 blood cancer patients currently on watch and wait in the UK are of a working age.

While some of these people will eventually need treatment, others never will.

Many people will continue to work while on watch and wait and as they start treatment. In England, Scotland and Wales, employees with cancer are protected from discrimination at work under the Equality Act 2010. For the purposes of the Act, anyone with blood cancer is considered to meet the definition of disability from the day they are diagnosed. This is true even if they appear well and are not yet receiving treatment.

A new fact sheet to help HR professionals support employees on watch and wait has been published by the blood cancer research charity Bloodwise and can be downloaded here.

Some blood cancers are life-long

Depending on their condition and individual outlook, some people can live with blood cancer for the rest of their lives and will wish to continue working following their diagnosis. You are legally obliged not to treat any employee less favourably because of a blood cancer diagnosis, or a reason arising from their diagnosis – such as the need to work reduced hours – unless such treatment is justified.

Have clear sick pay guidelines

Because of the range of ways in which blood cancers can affect people, it is essential to have a clear set of policies in place when it comes to sick leave. Legally, employers are obliged to pay statutory sick pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks. Your employee may also be entitled to company sick pay (also called ‘contractual’ or ‘occupational’ sick pay) on top of SSP, depending on their contract.

Often an employer will pay company sick pay as well as SSP, at least for an initial period, as a goodwill gesture – even if the contract doesn’t require them to.

If you do choose to do this, you should have a set of guidelines in place that outline under what circumstances and for how long you’ll do this, to make sure all employees in a similar situation are treated fairly.

Ill-health insurance can provide financial support for an employee who is unable to work for a longer period of time, or for someone who has been advised to stop work completely.

However, providing this benefit can be expensive for the employer and some policies will list exclusions that mean they’re not suitable for everyone, so it’s worth doing your research before taking out a policy.

Make reasonable adjustments

You must make reasonable adjustments to ensure any workers (including contract workers, trainees, apprentices and business partners) with blood cancer are not seriously disadvantaged when doing their jobs.

Examples of a reasonable adjustment include allowing paid time off for check-ups or treatment, offering flexible working hours to help employees cope with fatigue (a common symptom of chronic blood cancers), or organising a gradual return to work following treatment. But there are many possibilities depending on the worker’s circumstances.

Returning to work

Many blood cancers and cancer treatments can leave people immune-compromised (which means it’s harder for their body to fight infections).

If your employee has a significantly long recovery period after treatment, but has reached a point where they’re no longer immune-compromised, you may want to offer them the opportunity to come into work (in a non-working capacity) for a few hours on an occasional basis; or perhaps to have access to emails as and when they want.

This way, they can keep in touch with colleagues and project teams, making their eventual return to work much easier.

If you don’t have access to advice from your employee’s healthcare team, you may want to seek advice from an occupational health professional, who will specialise in workplace health issues like a phased-return to work. You’ll also need to think about anything else that might affect your employee’s return to work, including your own assessment of their needs and those of the rest of the team.

Although it’s important to get a return-to-work plan right, it’s also good to be aware that too many emails or appointments could overburden your employee – particularly if they’re still recovering from treatment. Where possible, follow their lead and make it clear that you’re happy to discuss next steps when they’re ready.

Do not make assumptions

No two blood cancer diagnoses – or individuals – are the same, so assumptions should not be made about your employee’s circumstances, capabilities or any adjustments you may need to make in the workplace.

Some individuals may choose to tell colleagues themselves about their diagnosis, while others may prefer for another colleague to share the news on their behalf.

Some people – particularly those without many symptoms, who manage their blood cancer with regular check-ups or daily tablets – may choose to keep their diagnosis confidential. This is entirely their right and needs to be respected.

If your employee does choose to share their diagnosis with others, it’s important to understand exactly what information they would like to be shared, how they would like it communicated and with whom. Decisions like this should be made in partnership with your employee.

Things can change

It’s equally important to make sure that any arrangements for your employees remain appropriate if things change.

If your employee continues to work following their diagnosis, you may want to schedule quarterly review sessions, or more informal chats following their check-ups, so you can make further arrangements if their symptoms develop.

Emotional support is vital

In addition to the numerous practical ramifications listed above, a blood cancer diagnosis can have a serious emotional and psychological impact on the people it affects.

Even for people on watch and wait, continuing life ‘as normal’ can be a daily struggle, with many experiencing high levels of anxiety between their check-ups. As an employer, you should be aware of this and recognise that everyone will cope with a blood cancer diagnosis in their own way.

It’s also important to think about ways to support any other members of staff affected by the diagnosis. Employee assistance programmes and counselling sessions can be really valuable, so it is crucial that you make employees aware of any support available to them through your organisation.

The Bloodwise Support Line (0808 2080 888) is there for anyone affected by a blood cancer diagnosis. Lines are open Monday–Friday, 10am–4pm. Visit the Bloodwise website to find out more about specific blood cancers.

About Rose Sunter

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