Evelyn Wallace of AXA advises on respectfully managing an employee with cancer

Evelyn Wallace
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The first step towards managing cancer in the workplace effectively is to break down the stigma and communicate openly, with understanding and support. (Source: Getty )

With an estimated 2.5m people living with cancer in the UK there’s a strong chance that you, or someone you know, has personal experience of the disease.

Perhaps you’ve managed an employee who’s been diagnosed with cancer? With the number of people in the UK affected by cancer set to rise to 4m by 2030, there is every possibility that you may be faced with this situation at some point in your management career. And, if this does occur, it’s important to be prepared so that you can support them practically, sensitively and in the way that works best for them.

Research from AXA PPP healthcare highlights that a fifth (21 per cent) of UK managers with employees who have had cancer have never discussed their illness with them, and 20 per cent are unsure how to even broach the subject of cancer – or, indeed, other illnesses – with employees.


Evidently a stigma still surrounds cancer so to help reduce awkwardness and help you offer the right support to an employee it’s important to be proactive. If they’ve been away receiving treatment, then catching up with them before they return to work will help you understand whether, or how, they want to talk about their cancer. So agree a good time and place to talk and let them set the pace of the conversation. Ask yourself whether they’re making light of their situation as a coping mechanism. Or, are they having difficulty talking about it?

Ask whether they would like their team to know how they’re getting on – an offer to disclose such news on their behalf may be appreciated. This could include colleagues with whom they are close, or whose workload may be affected by any time they have off during the course of their treatment.

Our research reveals that 17 per cent of managers who had an employee with cancer return to work admitted having told the employee’s colleagues about their cancer, without discussing it with the employee, because they thought their colleagues should know about it.

But do remember that an employee may wish to be in control and tell colleagues personally, so ask how much they wish to share. It could be that work offers them a sense of normality which helps them cope, so you must respect any request for confidentiality.


You may need to consider workplace adjustments – such as a phased return to normal duties – and alter your management style when the employee returns. Nearly two-thirds of managers we surveyed who had an employee return to work after cancer said they didn’t change their approach. Instead, it’s integral to discuss their preferred way of moving forward.

Respect that your employee may need time off for appointments, treatment and recovery, so outline organisational policies on flexible working. Explain arrangements regarding paid, unpaid and compassionate leave. Perhaps your organisation has an employee assistance programme that offers counselling.

Enlisting a colleague to handle work and forwarding any important emails in their absence will also help. Fundamentally, facilitate a smooth transition to and from work, so that it does not feel like upheaval to your employee, or put unnecessary strain on them.

Appreciate that not every day is the same for someone with, or recovering from, any serious illness and that their mental and physical health may vary. The first step towards managing cancer in the workplace effectively is to break down the stigma and communicate openly, with understanding and support.

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