Most people suffer a sense of deep shock when they are told that they have cancer. It is illegal to discriminate against employees suffering from cancer. Having the disease is considered a protected characteristic under the equality act. Our guide to cancer and employment law in the UK will help you understand your rights at work.
Your Cancer Diagnosis & Work
When you are diagnosed with cancer, it is considered a disability in the eyes of the law. Your workplace cannot treat you differently from other workers, or discriminate against you because you are unwell.
Employers should be understanding about the fact that you are going through a very stressful time. Your workplace should relate to you in a supporting manner to help you cope with the cancer and its treatment.
Before Cancer Treatment
Before treatment, it’s often difficult to know just how the treatment may affect you. It’s helpful to let your employer know this so that they are aware that you may need to change your work plans at short notice.
You may need to contact your employer out of office hours, so it may be worth asking if they are prepared to give you contact details in case you need to contact them out of the office. Most employers will be happy to give you their mobile number, or an email address they can remotely access.
Asking For Adjustments So You Can Continue Working
Communicate with your employer or HR manager. They may be able to make reasonable adjustments to your duties and working hours to let you continue working during treatment.
Understandably, some employers may not have dealt with an employee having cancer. The more you talk with them, the more they can try to support you in the best way. It’s likely that you will need to take time off work for treatment and rest afterwards.
This time off can be taken as:-
- Sickness absence.
- An agreed reduction in working hours or days. For example if you need to attend a weekly hospital appointment.
- Paid holiday.
- A combination of the above.
Your employer or HR manager should be able to give you all the information you need about your company’s sickness policy and how much paid and unpaid sickness leave you are entitled to.
Your employer must by law make reasonable adjustments for you to ensure your safety at work, and to enable you to continue working with cancer if you wish. What ‘reasonable adjustments’ are will depend upon your type of employment.
If employed in a factory– can you do your work sitting on a stool rather than standing so it is less tiring? If employed in a restaurant– can you take your break in small chunks more regularly, rather than a full hour at once?
Some adjustments can be expected in every role however. Such as:-
Reducing your working daysto work part-time. Changing your working hours– For example to start earlier and have a longer lunch break to let you attend local appointments. Changing your working environmentto make your work less tiring in some way. For example locating you next to equipment you need, or providing a trolley to reduce the need to carry heavier items.
Discuss Reasonable Adjustments With Your Employer
You should discuss any adjustments that you feel would help you in dealing with your illness with your employer. Your employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, but you should tell your employer what you need. You can also talk about what parts of your work you are finding challenging.
Identify any problems to your employer and they can work with you to create some solutions. Be aware that your employer may be unable to offer an adjustment (for example starting earlier). But they should explain their reasons for not allowing any requested adjustment with you. Just because a requested adjustment is not made does not make it unreasonable.
Privacy and Confidentiality
If you tell your employer you have cancer but don’t want your colleagues to know, your employer should respect your wishes. Union reps and HR managers should also respect your privacy.
Occupational health staff are bound by the patient confidentiality code of all health workers and so will not tell anyone about your illness without your permission. Whilst many people don’t want “a fuss” or sympathy, you may benefit from the support of your workmates.
This may also stop awkward questions later on if you have to take a period of absence, or for example lose your hair due to chemotherapy. However, if don’t feel you can discuss your illness with colleagues personally, your employer or HR manager may be able to do this for you in an agreed sensitive way. This could be in a staff meeting or via staff bulletin emails, at your request.
Cancer & The Equality Act 2010
Under the equality act 2010 it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because of their disability. Everyone with cancer is classed as disabled under the DDA (due to this being a long-term illness) and so is protected by the Act.
The act also covers workers who have suffered with cancer in the past. A worker who has had cancer in the past, but is currently in remission or is now completely cured, will still be covered by the legislation. Therefore, an employer cannot discriminate against a person for a reason relating to them previous having cancer.
This protection extends to job applicants as well as existing employees. It is illegal for an employer to refuse a job application on grounds of previous cancer diagnosis.
If you are being interviewed for a new position and you are asked about whether the cancer might limit your ability to do the job, it can be worth pointing these facts out. Cancer survivors often have an incredible strength of character and ability to deal with stressful situations which would make you an asset to any employer.
Discrimination During Cancer Treatment
The following scenarios may give you cause to report your employer for discrimination during your treatment. If your employer:
- Does not making reasonable changes so you can carry on doing your job
- Gives you a warning for excessive sick leave without making allowances for your cancer
- Suggests it would be best for you to stop working
- Dismisses you for a reason that might relate to your illness
- Demotes you
- Overlooks your promotion case because of a reason related to your cancer
- Chooses you for redundancy because you’ve taken more sick leave (due to cancer) than others
- Does not allow you time off for medical appointments
If you feel that you are being discriminated against at work due to currently or previously having cancer, you can do something about it. The steps you can take are:
- Complain to your line manager or area manager.
- Formally complain using your company’s grievance procedures (which should be available upon request from your line manager).
- Take your employer to an Employment Tribunal.
If you think you have been discriminated against, you should complain as soon as possible. If you wish to take your complaint to the Employment Tribunal, you have three months from the date of the discriminatory act, or end of the period of discrimination to do so.
After Cancer Treatment has Finished
Most people expect to be ‘over the moon’ once their treatment has ended, and feel that they can put their illness behind them.
For others, it can often be difficult. Some people have fears about the cancer returning and may feel quite depressed. Usually these feelings diminish over time, but there is support available. Speak to your GP about your concerns, and if you feel it will help, speak to your employer or HR Department to explain that you are still recovering.
Cancer is a difficult illness that, along with treatments such as chemotherapy, has a huge draining impact on your body. Do not think that you have to be back to full fitness immediately. As long as you communicate with your employer, they should understand.
You may also need to make your employer aware that you will need to continue to attend your GP or hospital for check-up appointments intermittently for a few years after your treatment. You are entitled to take time off work for these appointments. However speak to your employer about these, as you may not be entitled to be paid for time taken off work for this purpose unless it is part of your holiday entitlement.