Cancer: Your Rights as an Employee

Most people suffer a sense of deep shock when they are told that they have cancer. Many choose to confront this potentially life threatening disease head on, and try to continue their life with as much normality as possible. For many, this also means choosing to keep on working. Others find that they need to keep working as much as they can for financial reasons.

Support from your Employer

Employers should be understanding about the fact that you are going through a very stressful time and should relate to you in a supporting manner to help you cope with the cancer and its treatment.

Before Treatment

Before treatment, it’s often difficult to know just how the treatment may affect you, and 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.

Communicate with your employer or HR manager; they may be able to make changes to your duties and your working hours to enable you to continue working throughout your treatment. Understandably, some employers may not have had any experience of dealing with an employee with cancer before, so the more you communicate with them, the more they can try to support you in the best way possible. It is likely that you will need to take time off work for treatment and recuperation during your treatment. This time off can be taken as:

  • sickness absence
  • an agreed reduction in working hours or days per week (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 leave you are entitled to.

Reasonable adjustments

Your employer must by law make reasonable adjustments for you to ensure both your safety at work, and to enable you to continue working with an illness if you wish to do so. What constitutes ‘reasonable adjustments’ will largely depend upon your type of employment. For example:

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 to be considered across every role however. These include:

Reducing your working days to work part-time

Altering your working hours (for example to start earlier and have a longer lunch break to enable you to attend local appointments during this time)

Altering your working environment to 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 adjustments with your employer

You should discuss any adjustments that you feel would benefit you in dealing with your illness with your employer. Whilst your employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, the onus is on you to tell your employer what you feel you need, or what particular aspects of your work you are finding challenging. Identify any problems to your employer so that they are aware of these issues and can consider solutions with you. 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 and not discuss your illness with anyone without your permission. Union representatives and HR managers should also observe your privacy and not pass on any confidential information about you. Occupational health staff are bound by the patient confidentiality code of all health professionals and so will not tell anyone about your illness without your express permission. Whilst many people don’t want “a fuss” or sympathy, you may benefit from the support of your colleagues. This may also prevent 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, such as in a staff meeting or via staff bulletin emails, at your request.

Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA)

Now superseded by the Equality Act 2010 but the same principles apply, under the DDA, 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 DDA also covers workers who were disabled in the past, even if they are no longer disabled. 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 DDA even though they may no longer be receiving treatment. Therefore, an employer cannot discriminate against a person for a reason relating to them previous having cancer.

The following scenarios may give you cause to report your employer for discrimination. 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:

  1. complain to your line manager or area manager
  2. formally complain using your company’s grievance procedures (which should be available upon request from your line manager)
  3. take your employer to an Employment Tribunal

If you think you have been discriminated against, you should complain as soon as possible after the discriminatory act takes place, or after the period of discrimination ends. 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.

Further information regarding your rights under the DDA and more useful advice is available in our article Disability at Work.

After Cancer Treatment has Finished

Whilst most people often 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 a difficult. Some people, quite naturally, can 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 therefore 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.

Research has shown that people who have had treatment for cancer are as productive, or even more productive, than people who have not suffered from the illness. It has been shown that they take less time off work than other employees and, even though they may have lasting effects from the treatment, they still work extremely hard and effectively.

If you are being interviewed for a new position and you are asked about whether the cancer might inhibit your ability to do the job (even though you may have been cured for some time), 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.

Remember, failure to hire you for a role on the basis of you currently or previously having cancer is discriminatory, in the same way as not hiring someone because they are gay or from an ethnic minority group.

Last Updated on 9 August 2021

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