Talking about cancer at work

work wellbeing meeting

Research reveals a significant number of managers are uncomfortable speaking with their employees about illness and feel most uncomfortable discussing cancer

A significant number of UK managers are unsure of how to speak to their employees about illness and are particularly uncomfortable speaking about cancer, finds a new report.

The research has revealed that 21 per cent of managers are uncomfortable speaking about any illness with an employee and have never spoken to a member of their team who has suffered with cancer about their illness. Meanwhile, one in five managers who are willing to discuss illness with employees are less comfortable discussing cancer than any other chronic illness.

This is despite the reality that there are currently 560,000 people in the workforce with cancer and statistics indicate this will rise to four million by 2030[1]. Therefore, managing cancer in the workplace will become increasingly commonplace for managers.

The study also found that many managers discussed the employee’s cancer with their colleagues before their return to work without their permission, with one in six (17 per cent) saying that they had told the colleagues of the employee about their cancer without discussing it with them first.

Evelyn Wallace, Clinical Services Operations Manager at AXA PPP Healthcare, who commissioned the research, commented, “Many people assume that having a conversation with someone about their experience with cancer will be very difficult, or may not realise the importance to that person of having a frank discussion. However, it is alarming that some managers think it is acceptable instead to share details of an employee’s cancer with their colleagues without having that conversation and obtaining their permission first.

“Being diagnosed or receiving treatment for cancer can be a tremendously difficult experience and all those in employment are protected from any form of discrimination at work by the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland. It’s therefore vital that managers sit down and speak with an employee about how they want to proceed and respect any request for confidentiality before acting on or sharing sensitive information with their colleagues. The conversations won’t be difficult if both parties are open and honest from the start.”

The study also investigated the expectations that managers have of employees who are returning to work and found that nearly two thirds have not changed how they manage someone who has returned to work after completing treatment for cancer; 41 per cent of whom say that this is because they are worried about the employee’s abilities and have instead taken away all pressures.

However, despite removing any pressures, over a third say that they would still expect an employee to meet previous standards of work within six months.

Wallace continued, “This research shows that many managers, whether knowingly or otherwise, are not properly supporting employees who have been affected by cancer.

It’s important for senior staff to understand that returning to work can be very daunting for someone who has been affected by cancer and while an employee may appear fine at first, their recovery will be a rollercoaster, both mentally and physically, with numerous ups and downs and steps forward as well as back. Therefore, managers should not expect a formulaic return to previous standards, nor should they expect the same productivity levels straight away, and should instead be willing to talk, listen and be flexible in the support they offer.”