Spotlight on staff with cancer

Ten months after the introduction of new employment protection rights for those diagnosed with cancer, many organisations are continuing to discriminate against them, according to a recent survey from the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

More than 170 cancer sufferers have reported problems with their employers to the DRC helpline in recent months, with nearly one in five saying they had been dismissed, 13% facing dismissal threats, and 6% facing disciplinary action for taking too much time off.


Under an amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force last December, anybody with cancer, HIV or multiple sclerosis is deemed to have a disability and must be protected from the point of diagnosis.

The law says that the onus is on the employer to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to allow them to stay at work. This includes offering flexible work patterns, alterations to hours, and time off for hospital visits.

The DRC believes that many organisations are failing to respond in a positive way, but some are. One employer highlighted by the commission as a beacon of good practice is Sussex Police, where it felt the ongoing support for a police officer with breast cancer went beyond the call of duty.

“Cancer touches many people’s lives at some stage,” says Sharon Ault, HR manager at the North Downs division of Sussex Police. “If one of our staff is diagnosed with cancer, or needs preventative treatment, we look to provide as much support as we can, in whatever form is most appropriate.

“Understanding, flexibility, fairness and respect can help to build a stronger emotional contract, and that means you have a more motivated member of staff,” she says.


Agnes Fletcher, assistant director of communications at the DRC, has sympathy with small employers without in-house HR or legal expertise, but believes larger organisations have little defence. One high-street retailer, for example, dismissed a woman with breast cancer because she was unable to give a return-to-work date after radiotherapy.

“While this amendment is fairly new, we expect emp­loyers to understand their obligations and give people with cancer a fair chance,” says Fletcher.

Ault believes that HR’s role in supporting people with cancer should be proactive. “HR may be directly involved in communicating with the individual or providing guidance to line management – particularly if they feel uncomfortable with the issue,” she says.

Ault has been surprised at how soon cancer sufferers do return to work – many while they are still undergoing treatment – and their determination to resume their responsibilities as quickly as possible. All good reasons for doing everything to retain them.

Dealing with the diagnosis…

  •  Make equal opportunities policies clearly visible to encourage staff to discuss diagnosis.
  • Encourage staff to talk to HR if the prospect of speaking to line managers is too daunting.
  • Inform people of their legal rights – it can boost their confidence and encourage them to open up.
  • When an employee is away, keep the lines of communication open to prevent ‘drift’.
  • Don’t tell other members of staff why a colleague is off work if they do not wish this to be known.
  • A flexible return to work is often the best option, but keep talking. Many people with a serious illness see work as a lifeline.
  • Handle new arrangements sensitively to avoid jealousy or resentment among colleagues.

Source: Disability Rights Commission

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