Navigating the impact of cancer in the workplace

Female cancer patient with work colleague

Employees with cancer need the support of both managers and colleagues in the workplace

How managers can support those in the workplace affected by cancer

Cancer affects individuals physically and emotionally. It also casts a shadow over their professional lives. In the workplace, the impact of cancer is profound, often leading to increased stress for both the affected employee and their colleagues.

It is vital that managers recognise the challenges faced by employees with cancer and provide the necessary support to help them, and those around them, navigate through this difficult journey.

A survey of our Cancer Coach participants revealed that 55% of our Cancer Coach attendees wanted more support when returning to work. It is clear from this feedback that there is a huge opportunity for every organisation to do more to help the increasing numbers of people affected by cancer who want to remain or return to the workplace.

The impact of cancer in the workplace

  • Colleagues and managers will have differing reactions. They may question their own health – “it could happen to me, too”, or it may trigger reminders of a past cancer experience.
  • The news of another’s cancer diagnosis may cause concern about taking on extra work. Or they simply will worry about saying the wrong thing, and end up saying nothing, when in fact the person needs support.
  • Managers may even feel a sense of guilt for failing to realise that the employee wasn’t well.
  • Receiving a cancer diagnosis can turn an individual’s world upside down. Suddenly, they are faced with daunting treatment regimens, endless doctor’s appointments, and uncertainty about their future.

From absenteeism to fear of discrimination – the effects of cancer

  • Decreased productivity: Understandably, employees undergoing cancer treatment may experience decreased productivity due to fatigue, pain, or side effects of treatment.
  • Emotional distress: Coping with cancer can be emotionally taxing, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. This emotional burden can spill over into the workplace, affecting the employee’s ability to concentrate and perform effectively.
  • Absenteeism and presenteeism: Cancer treatment often requires time off for medical appointments, procedures, and recovery. Additionally, employees may come to work while not feeling their best, leading to presenteeism – being physically present but not fully engaged or productive.
  • Fear of discrimination: Employees may fear discrimination or stigma associated with their diagnosis, leading them to hide their condition or avoid seeking necessary accommodations.
Young black woman talking to another woman at work

Open communication between the employee and their manager is to be encouraged

Supporting employees with cancer

Managers play a crucial role in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace environment both for employees facing cancer and co-workers who will be impacted by the diagnosis, too. Here are some strategies to provide better support:

  • Open communication: 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.
  • Flexible work arrangements: Offer flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, flexible hours, or reduced workload to accommodate medical appointments and treatment schedules.
  • Employee assistance programmes (EAPs): Provide access to EAPs or counseling services to support employees’ emotional well-being. These programmes can offer counseling, support groups, and resources to help employees cope with the challenges of cancer.
  • Accommodations: Work with the employee to identify and implement reasonable accommodations to support their work performance. This may include ergonomic adjustments, temporary reassignments, or modified work schedules.
  • Educate colleagues: colleagues of those with cancer can become demoralised if they find they’re being expected to provide cover, working more hours or at a higher tempo, especially if without additional remuneration. An education session for staff about cancer can dispel some of the myths and concerns that people may have. Learning more about how different cancer treatments affect people and knowing how to handle sensitive conversations can be beneficial and give staff the confidence to support their colleagues appropriately.
  • Foster a culture of empathy and understanding, and discourage any form of discrimination or stigma.
  • Respect privacy: Respect the employee’s privacy and confidentiality regarding their diagnosis. Avoid sharing sensitive information without their consent and ensure that any discussions about accommodations are kept confidential.
  • Offer support resources: Provide information about support resources available both within the company and externally. This may include employee resource groups, community organisations, support programmes, such as Cancer Support UK’s free Cancer Coach peer support groups, and online support forums.

A need for better understanding of cancer

Cancer is a challenging journey, and navigating it while balancing work responsibilities and health issues can be overwhelming for employees. Having a greater understanding of cancer, its causes, types and side effects, can help greatly.

Managers have a responsibility to provide compassionate support and create an inclusive workplace environment where employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to manage their health and work responsibilities effectively. By implementing these strategies, they can help ease the stress of cancer in the workplace and foster a culture of care and support for all employees.

Cancer Support UK offers a selection of workplace cancer support training courses. To arrange a discussion, email: