Cancer and Time Off Work

One of our Regional Managers went to see one of our managers who has been off sick with cancer for 8 months. It is said that he opened the conversation with the phrase “Right Barry, I think it is time to stop playing on this cancer thing and get back to work”. His wife, who also works for us, has complained that they were both so shocked by this opening statement that they really did not take in much more. She is angry and her husband is now feeling depressed about it, when timing wise he has only one more cycle of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to go. We asked the Regional Manager who has admitted to this comment.

Peter replies:

Approximately 90,000 people of working age receive a new cancer diagnosis every year. Millions of people in the UK under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. More people are also surviving the disease and continuing or resuming their every-day lives, including their working career, as a result of continuing progress in diagnosis and treatment. This means that it is increasingly important that employers have the right policies, procedures and attitudes to provide the necessary advice and support to help employees affected by cancer from the point of diagnosis.

Your manager’s comments were at best crass and at worst insensitive and discriminatory.

Being diagnosed with cancer can be one of the most difficult situations that anyone has to face. It can cause great fear and worry, and can affect every aspect of their life, including their ability to work.

Very few organisations have a cancer policy and not many ensure that relevant staff have a good understanding of cancer and the impact of treatment on employees. Most organisations however do have policies or practices on phased return-to-work and provide a significant amount of flexibility around hours and work adjustments to employees affected by cancer. This does not require much training other than reminding people that cancer is a disability, that disability discrimination is unlawful and that stupid comments can be discriminatory.

Whilst it is tempting to put all the blame on your manager, too few employers ensure relevant staff have sufficient knowledge on how cancer affects individuals, or give them the necessary support, so the company are partially to blame too. Instead you could have conducted a cancer risk assessment with the employee and then taken appropriate action, with regular contact on an agreed basis.

There are many straightforward steps that employers can take. The simplest and easiest way you can help staff members with cancer is to keep in regular contact with the employee, and, plan their return-to-work carefully with them. Reasonable adjustments such as flexible working arrangements and a phased return-to-work can ease the transition back to work, when people are still dealing with the physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment.

You should quickly instruct your Regional Manager to visit again to apologise for his insensitivity and to re-assure the couple that his employer is going to do all that it can to help them (bearing in mind that the cancer affects his wife as well). It may be as well to have him accompanied by a senior colleague. After 8 months you might just have had a chance to fairly dismiss, subject to following a thorough consultation and medical assessment. This opportunity has gone and all you can do now is to be properly supportive, and thus potentially avoid a Tribunal claim, and keeping your company’s name out of the newspapers.

The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action make sure that you know what you are doing, or call us for specific advice.