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Today is World Cancer Day


4th February is World Cancer Day when organisations and individuals around the World unite to raise awareness about cancer and work to make it a global health priority.  The Day aims to save millions of preventable deaths each year through education, raising awareness and by pressing governments and individuals across the world to take action.

MacMillan estimates that in the UK alone, there are around 2.5 million people living with cancer, with nearly 1000 new cases being diagnosed every day*; there are also an additional 700,000 employees caring for someone with cancer.

With statistics like this, it is not surprising that the majority of workplaces will be affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly. It is therefore vital that employers are aware of their obligations when staff have cancer or are caring for family members who have been diagnosed and/or are undergoing treatment. Employers should also have a basic understanding of cancer and its treatment as this will help them provide the right support to their employees and recognise any issues that may arise at work.

Employees with Cancer

Where an employee (which for this purpose includes workers and job applicants) has cancer, or has had cancer in the past, they are protected by law from unfair treatment /discrimination at work under the Equality Act 2010, provided the employer knows about the condition (or ought reasonably to have known about it). However, employers have no legal right to know a diagnosis or the details of an employee’s condition. The protection applies as soon as the employee is diagnosed with cancer and continues even if they have been treated successfully and are now in remission.

Examples of discrimination may include: –

  • refusing to adjust an employee’s rota/working hours;
  • issuing them with a disciplinary warning for sickness related sickness absence where the absence relates to their cancer diagnosis;
  • harassing/bullying them in connection with their diagnosis; and
  • making decisions about promotions/job prospects due to their cancer.

Employers are also under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to try and support employees both during and after their treatment in an attempt to reduce/mitigate the negative effect of their cancer diagnosis. What is reasonable will depend on the facts of each case and how practicable the suggested adjustment is but this may include: –

  • changing the employee’s role to remove/amend tasks which are now difficult;
  • granting additional time off for appointments;
  • implementing a phased return to work following medical treatment/sickness absence;
  • considering alternative employment if their existing job is no longer possible; and
  • allowing flexible/home working.

Minor, practical changes should also be explored and these may include:-

  • arranging a convenient car parking space near the workplace;
  • providing extra breaks;
  • relocating the employee’s workspace to the ground floor to avoid stairs; and
  • providing appropriate software to assist with completion of work tasks.

It is a good idea to seek medical advice about any potential adjustments from an Occupation Health advisor or from the worker’s GP provided the employee consents to this although on-going communication with the employee is also crucial.

Many employers often want to provide their employees with additional support during treatment or when they return to work. This may include regular catch up meetings with the employee, special/agreed methods of communication (for example, weekly/monthly emails to keep the worker updated about work news during lengthy periods of absence) and also providing access to independent counsellors/Employee Assistance Programmes to provide emotional support.

The Government’s Access to Work programme can also provide employers and employees with practical support and advice to meet extra costs that may arise where the employee is struggling to do their own job due to their medical condition (https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work). Examples of support that may be funded by the Scheme include paying for a support worker to help the employee in the workplace, providing a grant for special equipment needed in the workplace or paying for travel to/from work if the employee can’t use public transport.

Employees who are carers

Where employees are looking after someone with cancer, they also have certain legal rights including protection against discrimination, requesting flexible working and taking reasonable time off to deal with an emergency affecting a dependant. Employers usually offer compassionate leave following a bereavement as well and this is usually set out in the employment contract although can be dealt with on a discretionary basis. A new workplace right (The Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Act) to 2 weeks’ paid leave for employed parents who lose a child under 18 is expected to come into force in 2020.

Being a carer may also impact on an employee’s own mental and physical health so employers should consider providing them with additional support and flexibility, for example, by allowing them to take parental leave (if caring for a child), taking additional time off and changing/condensing their working hours.  This will also protect the employee from financial pressures during this time.

What should employers do now?

Employers should ensure that their policies are up to date and that line managers have received appropriate training to deal with the issues outlined above.  In addition to being an important source of support for employees affected by cancer, line managers will often be the main contact point between the Company and the employee when discussing the impact of their condition and are likely to play an important role in considering reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Employers should, therefore, ensure that line managers have access to HR and Occupational Health support, where relevant, to ensure that cases are dealt with appropriately and in line with Company procedure.

It is also sensible to raise awareness and educate the workforce generally about cancer as this will create a more supportive, inclusive environment for all members of staff and reduce the risk of disability discrimination or harassment occurring in the workplace for which the employer will often be vicariously liable.

If you need assistance regarding any of the issues outlined above, please get in touch with Jo Handler, Associate Solicitor in our Employment Team on T: 0161 358 0548 or E: johandler@hrclaw.co.uk.

*MacMillan: Statistics Fact Sheet (December 2017)

This contains a general overview of information only. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice. You should consult a suitably qualified lawyer on any specific legal problem or matter.