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Supporting employees with cancer or long-term illness diagnosis

With estimates of approximately 367,000 people diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year, it is unfortunately very likely that most employers will need to consider employee assistance at some stage.

Cancer as a disability

Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 meaning that an employee does not have to show that they meet the definition of disability as set out in the Act.

Once an employer has knowledge of a disability, they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments that may be required to assist the individual in their role. This is usually considered following receipt of an occupational health report, paid for by the employer. This may extend to a change in working pattern or change in hours, however every individual scenario will be different.

Supporting staff

It’s important that you give staff the support and flexibility they need when they have received a diagnosis for a life-threatening disease.

Many businesses enrol staff into Employee Assistance Programmes (“EAP”) to give individuals access to confidential and free advice in how to cope with both personal and workplace issues. EAPs can provide outside perspective as well as practical advice that could help employees come to a decision about how they would like to move forward from their diagnosis.

Employers should provide staff flexibility to attend medical appointments, including for any treatment required. Such treatment is usually long term and employers should be prepared for regular or lengthy absences from the individual. It is key that any such absence should be differentiated from non disability related absence, especially when considering scoring on a Bradford Factor.

The priority at all times is an employee’s health and this should always come first. Staff should be given the time they need to deal with their diagnosis and seek treatment. Remember that if you treat an employee in an unfair or discriminatory way, including trying to force an employee back to work early, you could leave your business vulnerable to a discrimination claim.

As an employer, you could also look into Group Income Protection schemes (“GIP”) whereby staff could receive a percentage of their salary if they cannot work or attend the workplace. Financial security will obviously be a big concern for someone who has received a cancer diagnosis, so being able to reassure them that they will receive a salary while they’re incapacitated can give peace of mind and relieve some of the stress they will already be feeling.

There are plenty of charities across the UK that work to fundraise, research and support people who are living with cancer. Simply signposting individuals to these charities and organisations for further information can be really beneficial to individuals. Locally, we have Maggie’s, Sue Ryder, Macmillan and Charlies, as well as NHS funded organisations like Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.


Given the prevalence of cancer in our society, taking opportunities to educate staff on diseases is important. You could look to create a calendar of events to mark awareness of different illnesses (see table below) or choose to focus on one particular day, for instance World Cancer Day on 4 February, a day that unites people, communities and entire countries to raise awareness and take action. 


Cervical cancer prevention week


Oesophageal cancer awareness week

World cancer day


Colorectal cancer awareness

Ovarian cancer awareness

Brain tumour awareness

Prostate cancer awareness


Bowel cancer awareness

Testicular cancer prevention


Bladder cancer awareness

Sun awareness week

Skin cancer awareness


Cervical screening awareness week


Sarcoma awareness


Childhood cancer awareness

Blood cancer awareness

Gynaecological cancer awareness

Thyroid cancer awareness

Urological cancer awareness


Breast cancer awareness


Lung cancer awareness

Pancreatic cancer awareness

Mouth cancer awareness

You could, if the employee was comfortable with your doing so, look at involving the business in fundraising for a charity like Cancer Research UK to bring awareness to the disease they are suffering from and raise vital funds for treatments and research.


HR teams and management should also be mindful that a person’s medical records and diagnosis is special category data, and therefore should be treated as such. Information should not be released without consent from the individual.

Whilst an employee may be open about their diagnosis to colleagues, an employer should limit the information provided to staff. An obvious example is line management who are keen to understand when an individual is returning and/or what plans are in place to cover the individual’s workload in the intervening period. Information should be kept to a minimum and relate only to the employer's plans to cover the individual for a period of time. 


Receiving a diagnosis of cancer or long-term illness can be very upsetting for anyone and can be a very difficult time to not only absorb the information, but also to undergo any treatment that may be required.  Employers should try to alleviate the pressure on individuals by providing them with support, flexibility and time to talk through their concerns in a confidential and compassionate environment.

If you need advice on how you can help staff, or put procedures or policies in place in your workplace, contact Steve Conlay or a member of BPE’s Employment team for practical advice.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.


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