Tackling the workplace cancer taboo

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Dec 2016

13 Dec 2016 • by Changeboard Team

This means it’s likely that many of the managers in your organisation will be faced with employees who have been diagnosed and treated for the disease. Managers who find themselves in this situation may look to you for assistance and advice, in turn, so it’s important to be prepared to help them to support these employees in a sensitive, pragmatic way.

At AXA PPP healthcare we recently conducted research that revealed a fifth (21 %) of UK managers with employees who have had cancer have never discussed their illness with them. 20% of managers also said they are unsure how to even broach the subject of cancer – or, indeed, other illnesses – with employees. For them, talking about cancer is evidently a bridge too far. But, in order to help reduce the stigma managers such as these seem to associate with the condition and enable them to effectively support employees affected by the disease, it’s important to train and support them to take a positive, empathetic approach to talking to employees affected by cancer as they prepare and when they eventually return to work. 

Starting the conversation

Managers should be encouraged to contact employees who have been away from work receiving treatment to agree a suitable time and place to discuss whether, or how, they want to talk about their condition. And, when they have that conversation, managers should be considerate and understanding, allowing the employee to set the pace, encouraging them to speak freely about their situation and wishes for their return to work.

Telling the team

As part of this discussion, it is advisable for managers to ask the employee whether they would like them to let their team know how they’re getting on. This could, for example, include colleagues to whom they are close and/or those whose workload may have been affected by their having had time off for their treatment. It’s an offer the returning employee may well appreciate. The decision about what to say to whom is the employee’s, however, and managers should remember that an employee may wish to be in control and tell their colleagues themselves. It is therefore important that managers find out and respect the employee’s wishes. For instance, it could be the case that work offers the employee a sense of normality that helps them cope and they would therefore prefer that their manager doesn’t discuss their situation with workmates. In light of this, it is alarming that 17% of the managers we surveyed who had an employee with cancer return to work admitted having told the employee’s colleagues about their cancer without discussing it with them because they thought their colleagues should know about it.

Workplace adjustments

You may also need to consider workplace adjustments for the employee – while they’re undergoing treatment as well as when they’re in recovery. This could include alterations to their working pattern such as a phased return to normal duties, home working or allowing for more frequent breaks. HR professionals should ensure that managers know where to find information on what their organisation offers in this regard such as how to refer the employee to their occupational health scheme or employee assistance programme, if they have them.

Managers may also need to be encouraged to modify their management style when employees return to work. And, as a part of this, managers and employees should agree a preferred way of working – for example, the frequency of catch-ups about how the employee is doing and their workload and how they’ll let the manager know if they need additional support. It’s also likely that their needs will evolve as they recover and regain their strength and confidence.

Employees affected by cancer – or any potentially life changing illness – may need time off for appointments, treatment and recovery, so make sure that managers in your company are aware of and understand your policies on flexible working (including paid, unpaid and compassionate leave) to allow for this as appropriate.  

Fundamentally, any support that an employer puts in place should aim to facilitate a smooth transition so that returning to work does not feel like an upheaval or put unnecessary strain on the employee. Work can provide a comforting sense of routine and stability so HR and managers should work together to try to ensure that, by accommodating the returning employees’ needs, they are able to retain these talented and valued members of their team. An open, honest and understanding approach to communication is key to overcoming the stigma associated with cancer and, in turn, to successfully managing employees affected by the condition. 


1.    Macmillan Cancer Support, 2015. Statistics fact sheet. p3. http://www.macmillan.org.uk/documents/aboutus/research/keystats/statisticsfactsheet.pdf from Maddams J, Utley M, Møller H. Projections of cancer prevalence in the United Kingdom, 2010-2040. Br J Cancer 2012; 107: 1195-1202. (Projections scenario 1). Macmillan analysis based on extrapolation of 2010 and 2020 projections that the number of people living with cancer will hit an estimated 2.5 million in 2015.

2.    Survey of 500 managers who manage someone who has or has had cancer, conducted online in September 2016 for AXA PPP healthcare by OnePoll.

3.    Macmillan Cancer Support. Working through cancer – a guide for employees supporting employees affected by cancer. http://www.macmillan.org.uk/documents/getinvolved/campaigns/workingthroughcancer/workingthroughcancer2010/workingthroughcancer2010.pdf