How to create a cancer aware workplace culture

Smiling young woman talking to wellness coach

Line managers play a crucial role in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace environment for employees diagnosed with cancer and must, therefore, receive training in empathy, active listening, and compassion

One in two people can expect a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime and it is estimated that approaching one million people of working age are living with cancer in the UK.

A 2016 YouGov survey for Macmillan found that 85% of people working when diagnosed with cancer said that it was important for them to continue working.

Work provides more than just an income. It offers social contact, a sense of normality, routine, and stability, and for those with cancer, it can aid recovery and contribute to better health. (1)

By building a work environment, which supports not just those living with cancer, but also upskills and trains managers and members of staff, a company can provide a more inclusive, caring, and productive work atmosphere for all its employees (1).

Supportive initiatives can also remove barriers, which prevent people from returning to work and, in doing so, they can protect valuable workforces and future productivity.

Creating a cancer aware workplace culture takes time, along with thorough consultation, flexibility and company-wide commitment, but it is achievable.

Where to begin

A good place to start is by clarifying and updating existing policies that outline support for employees dealing with cancer. These may include leave policies, flexible working arrangements, and healthcare benefits.

Once you have a solid policy in place make sure that everyone knows it exists and where they can find more information about it.

A Macmillan survey found that only 2% of people with cancer have access to specialist return to work services. (9)

And 68% of respondents polled in another survey said they did not feel supported during their return to the workplace after cancer – with many feeling pressured to return sooner than they felt ready. (2)

Cancer treatment can present many additional challenges to people living with cancer and companies should have a written Return to Work Plan in place to both counteract this and to clarify all parties’ expectations.

Line managers can make all the difference

Direct line managers play a crucial role in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace environment for employees diagnosed with cancer, as well as carers and co-workers, who will all be impacted by a diagnosis.

Ensure your line managers are always up to date on legal rights and protections for employees with cancer. Cancer is defined as a disability under the 2010 Equality Act. Consequently, companies must put in place so-called “reasonable adjustments” for employees with cancer. The legislation also covers employees with caring responsibilities, a fact often overlooked by employers.

The biggest challenge that most organisations face in creating a supportive culture is ensuring that employees feel comfortable coming forward and saying that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer and that they need additional support. (3) A Cancer@Work study found that 50% of people undergoing cancer treatment are too scared to tell their bosses they have cancer.

According to Macmillan, 14% of line managers said that they were uncomfortable talking to their employees about their employees’ cancer in the workplace. (9)

This can have a serious knock-on effect for employees.

According to Reframe: The Employee Experience report: Living and Working with Cancer, 50% of people with cancer were apparently afraid to tell their employers about their diagnosis. While 71% of people working with a cancer felt their HR team wasn’t prepared to help them through their health crisis. (2)

Educating line managers is key to creating a culture of empathy and understanding

It is vital to foster a culture of empathy and understanding from the top down in any business.

Educating line managers about how different cancer treatments affect people and knowing how to handle sensitive conversations can also be immensely beneficial in giving staff the confidence to support their colleagues appropriately.

This can be achieved by conducting regular training sessions for all managers focused on empathy, active listening, and compassion.

Real-life scenarios and role-playing can also help managers and HR staff understand the challenges faced by employees with cancer.

Using the correct language is important when talking to an employee with cancer.

Active listening is a valuable skill which enables a listener to tune in to not only a person’s spoken words, but also their body language, tone, pitch and speed of words. This enables the listener to fully engage with what someone is telling them and to show they are invested in what they are saying. (4)

How to talk to someone with cancer

Macmillan’s guidance on What to say to Someone who has Cancer is also very helpful. Examples include:

  • Try to listen instead of thinking about what you are going to say next.When the person with cancer is talking, pay attention to what they are saying.
  • Try not to say that everything will be fine or encourage them to be positive.It can sound as if you are not listening to their worries. It is better to let people speak honestly about their feelings.
  • It may also not be helpful to tell the person about other people’s stories.You may have heard about other people’s experiences with cancer. Cancer is different for everyone. They will get the information they need from their healthcare team.

More tips can be found in Cancer Support UK’s article How to support someone with cancer.

Ensuring privacy and confidentiality is vital

While empathy and open communication is vital, companies should always respect employees’ privacy and confidentiality regarding their cancer diagnosis.

Some people will not want to discuss their diagnosis, so avoid sharing sensitive information without their consent and ensure that any discussions about accommodations are kept confidential.

Different people will also need different help at different times. (6)

Create safe spaces where employees can talk about cancer

Encourage open communication between the employee and management. Create a safe space where employees feel comfortable discussing their diagnosis, treatment plan, and any accommodations they may need, at a time which is right for them.

The average employee with cancer will be absent from work for approximately 15 weeks (2).

Extended sick leave may lead to an employee becoming isolated. So, establish how often they would like you to make contact. This will make them feel valued and more positive about returning to work. (7)

Employees caring for people who have cancer may also need support. Carers have certain rights at work, including taking unpaid time off to care for the person they look after in an emergency.

Flexible working arrangements will help someone manage their health needs

Flexible working could make it easier for carers to keep working. (8)

Flexible hours and alternative working arrangements are key to helping employees manage their health while maintaining their work responsibilities.

Remote working, hybrid arrangements, telecommuting, work share or reduced workload can all be used to accommodate medical appointments and treatment schedules and can reduce the amount of leave people will need to take.

When returning to work, people who have completed their cancer treatment, may have trouble coping with work demands and may not be as physically productive as they were before diagnosis. This may also lead to feelings of guilt for these individuals. (9)

Looking after co-workers by listening and education will promote empathy

Likewise, colleagues of those with cancer can become demoralised if they find they’re being expected to provide cover, work more hours or work at a faster rate, especially if this is without additional remuneration. (11)

Education sessions for staff about cancer can dispel some of the myths and concerns that people may have and can promote better understanding and empathy.

The sessions could include information about how different cancer treatments affect people and advice on how to handle sensitive conversations. Both of which can give staff the confidence to support their colleagues appropriately. (10)

The physical, emotional and practical effects of cancer, and cancer treatment are also different for each person.

Cancer is an individual experience

What is best for one employee may not be right for another, so, make time to understand your employee’s individual needs. (8)

  • Cancer related fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of cancer treatment, with reports stating that up to a third of cancer patients experience fatigue, which can persist for years after treatment. (9)
  • Fatigue can affect a cancer patient’s productivity levels and ability to do tasks at work during and after the treatment phase. (5) It can even cause people to give up work or change jobs altogether. But with proper support from employers, many people can manage fatigue and do not need to leave work unnecessarily (9)
  • Work with the employee to make an assessment, so you can identify and implement reasonable accommodations to support their work performance.
  • This may include temporary reassignments, modified work schedules, or ergonomic office equipment to ensure added comfort for employees undergoing treatment.
  • Simple things such as moving a person’s desk to a quieter location, enabling them to sit closer to toilets, or offering them a car parking space if they are tired from commuting can make a big difference.
  • Make sure all your employees have access to a range of helpful resources on cancer and use internal communication platforms to keep them updated on what is available.

These support resources can come from within the company and externally and may include employee resource groups, advice from community organisations, support programmes such as Cancer Support UK’s free Cancer Coach peer support groups, and access to online support forums.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are a valuable tool, which can offer counselling and support services specifically geared towards employees dealing with cancer.

Peer group support can be beneficial

A company may also choose to offer access to mental health professionals and encourage taking mental health days when needed.

Shared experience can be extremely beneficial for people with cancer, and peer support groups for employees who have experienced or are experiencing cancer can provide a safe and welcoming space in which they can express feelings and worries and seek advice.

These groups might take the form of regular informal meetings, or they can be led by professional facilitators.

Whatever their form, they can be publicised through internal communications, staff newsletters, and during team meetings and all should have confidentiality guidelines put in place.

Lastly, organising awareness events, campaigns and taking part in events dedicated to cancer awareness such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Race for Life will also bring people together and can be used to raise funds for charities.

Whatever the size of your business or organisation there are both compassionate and good business reasons to create a supportive workplace culture.

So, start small, be concise and thoughtful.

It is also helpful to install an anonymous feedback mechanism whereby employees can provide opinions or raise concerns anonymously, as this will ensure continuous improvement of your support initiatives.

Most of all listen to your employees, show your long-term commitment to their wellbeing and your people and your business will reap the rewards.


  1. Macmillan
  2. Reframe: The Employee Experience report: Living and working with cancer
  3. Children and Family Advisory and Support Service
  4. How to be a better active listener by Caroline Beckett (Cancer Support UK website)
  5. Macmillan – What to say to Someone who has Cancer
  6. Business Disability Forum
  8. Macmillan: Top Tips for Line Managers.
  9. Macmillan Rich Picture
  10. Macmillan Community Online