Managing Cancer at the Workplace

Cancer at workplace

Due to early detection and advances in treatment options, cancer survival rates are slowly improving.  Employers are now increasingly faced with the effects of cancer among their workforce, which is why they need to be prepared to continue to provide their employees with a good environment to work in.  A cancer diagnosis can affect a person’s career to varying degrees.  While some decide to work while receiving treatment, others leave their jobs and return after their cancer treatment ends.

Cancer at workplacePeople with cancer are likely to face a number of struggles at the workplace such as having to cope with fatigue, difficulty in remembering and other consequences of treatment.  They may also expect obvious or subtle workplace discrimination.  They are also most likely to be unemployed as a result of their condition.

An employer should adopt a holistic strategy covering prevention, detection, treatment and reintegration into the workplace.  These are some of the things that employers can do to address Cancer in the workplace:

  1. Education about cancer: No matter how equipped with information we may be, the shock and emotion that comes with knowing a co-worker has cancer is a difficult one to process.  Including cancer related training and awareness programs can make employees prepared on how to best respond to the needs of those with cancer.  Managers are usually the first person to be contacted if an employee in their team has a positive diagnosis with cancer.   Therefore, it is necessary to provide management training to help them understand how to manage these workplace situations.  It also gives the employee with cancer the confidence to step forward when diagnosed.
  2. Meeting legal obligations: Some countries have strict laws relating to illness and disability and its associated discrimination; yet many countries still do not follow them strictly.  It is important to educate employees on their rights and make sure that the law is followed.  If the company does not have related workplace Policies and procedures, these guidelines should be created to cover sickness absence, long-term conditions, time off work and occupational health policies.
  3. Health and Well-being programs: Many organizations roll out health and well-being strategies that are focused on a preventative approach.  Some programs include:  Free or subsidized health screenings, Healthy on-site food, stress management training, flexible or work at home policies, Occupational Therapist consultations, incentives to stop smoking, disease awareness programs, fitness events or on-site gyms and Mental health awareness programs.
  4. Adjustments at work: Employers can make adjustments to the workplace or working patterns that will have a huge impact on a person with cancer. Different people will need different help at different times and should not be viewed as a one-size fits all solution.  Employers should ask the particular employee requesting an adjustment what he/she needs that will help them do their job. It is important to talk to the employee before making adjustments or reducing workload so that they do not feel incapable.  Some commonly requested adjustments are:
    1. Working Hours:
      1. Creating flexibility in working hours
      2. Time off for medical appointments without having to be taken off leave pay
      3. Extra breaks to cope with fatigue and to take medication
      4. Assistance with a phased return to work, whereby hours are gradually increased over a period of time.
    2.  Place of work:
      1. Providing a private place to rest and to take medications
      2. Providing a work from home option
      3. Moving the place where the employee works, e.g. to a ground floor if they have difficulty climbing stairs.
      4. Modification of office temperature
      5. Permission to use telephone to call doctors where a workplace may prohibit personal calls
      6. The employee could face a sensitivity to smell and would need to avoid cafeterias, strong perfume, aftershave or chemical products, as this can cause nausea particularly if they are having chemotherapy.
      7. Car parking close to the office can help if they are coping with low energy.
    3.  Job Duties:
      1. Changing their job descriptions for task that could be physically challenging
      2. Job sharing, reallocation or redistribution of marginal tasks
      3. Reassignment to a suitable vacant position
      4. Involve them in the handover process of their job tasks to another co-worker.
  5.  Co-workers: Be aware of the impact of an employee’s cancer diagnosis on the wider team.  Co-workers may be concerned about taking on extra workload so it is important to figure out the right level of support required.  It is important to remember that living with a terminal illness or surviving cancer is an extreme experience and the individual may be changed by what they have been through – be sensitive to their change.
  6. Confidentiality & Privacy: Respect the employee’s right to be private about his/her cancer diagnosis and the conditions thereafter.  Some people prefer not to talk about their personal lives at work, while others welcome the opportunity.  Check with them if they wish to talk about it or let it be known, and how they would like it to be communicated.  Ask if they would like to keep in touch when they are off work and decide what would be the best way to do it.
  7. Discrimination & Harassment: Workplace Polices should focus on discrimination based on health and disability and should promote equal opportunities for all.  Employers should make clear that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated based on disability and any such conduct should be reported immediately.  Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.
  8. Dismissal: Dismissal should only be considered after taking a good look if there is a significant risk of substantial harm to the individual and others and all possible adjustments cannot eliminate those risks.  These considerations should be made based on objective and factual evidence and with expert medical and occupational advice.  However good your intentions, there may be occasions when dismissal seems like the only viable option. It is important to manage the needs of the organization alongside the needs of the employee.
  9. Supporting the caregiver employee: You may have an employee in your organization who is caring for a cancer patient. They provide unpaid support to someone who cannot manage without their help and is often a family member or a close friend.   These employees with care-giving responsibilities are often overlooked by employers.  The most widely provided support is in the form of compassionate leave beyond set limits and flexible working time if required to attend medical appointments and other care-giving duties. 

It is ultimately the flexibility, goodwill and creative thinking of the employer that will protect the business interests while being supportive to the employee with cancer.  There are many ways to go the extra mile on top of allowing them their legal rights.

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