In the UK, approximately 375,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed annually, which is over 1,000 diagnoses a day. With one in two people developing some form of cancer in their lifetime, it is highly likely that employers will be exposed to the challenges this can bring. Would you know how to react and what you should do? By Pam Loch
The Covid-19 pandemic affected almost every aspect of life, and we will feel the repercussions for several years to come. Almost overnight, the general public and medical professionals alike were thrown into a global emergency to an extent that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. The strain Covid-19 put on the healthcare sector has unfortunately meant that conditions, such as cancer, could not be prioritised. There is now a backlog of patients waiting for diagnosis, treatment or follow-up tests and the knock-on effect is still present in 2022.
One example given by Macmillan Cancer Support of how much of an impact this has had is a patient who was diagnosed in 2018 with a brain tumour. After undergoing two operations, his condition was stable and he was given the all-clear to continue his life as normal. In March 2020, just as the pandemic began, his dizziness returned, but due to Covid, his routine scan was cancelled.
After contacting the hospital numerous times, the scan was rebooked for two and a half months later. However, the doctors found the tumour had returned and it had now reached an inoperable stage. Without the pandemic, the patient would have attended his regularly scheduled scan and surgeons could have saved his life.
These situations not only directly affect employers but also the family members. The families may have to take on the burden that was carried by someone who is unwell and they also have to cope with the stress of dealing with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer. Employers therefore need to think about being flexible in how they can help all their employees, and not just the person diagnosed with cancer, to support and retain their staff.
There are legal obligations which also come into play here too. Cancer is a deemed disability under the Equality Act 2010, and therefore staff have the protection afforded by that Act not to be treated less favourably than other employees. If employers fail to comply then they could face discrimination claims.
It is also important to keep in mind that caselaw has established that those with pre-cancerous cells, can also be regarded as having a disability too. So what do you have to do by law and what should you be doing to support your staff in this situation? Below are some thoughts on this:
1 Making reasonable adjustments
As cancer is a disability under the Equality Act 2010, employers must consider and make any reasonable adjustments to enable the employee to continue carrying out their role. These can include changes to the workplace or to the employee’s working arrangements to allow the staff member to remain at work, or to work in a reduced capacity. What is reasonable will vary depending on each organisation, so you may want to obtain some expert advice on this.
2 Talking about it
Employees may feel hesitant about talking about their diagnosis and how it could affect their performance or their job going forward. Encouraging staff to be open about this is important and, as a manager, it is vital to have the skills and knowledge to handle these difficult situations effectively. Loch Associates’ ‘Nip It In the Bud’ training is a practical workshop that equips managers to have those difficult conversations.
It is also worth having some information in your handbook which encourages staff to discuss the situation with you. It’s better to have an open discussion as soon as possible so that you can manage the situation rather than reactively deal with under-performance or absence management connected to the diagnosis.
3 Taking time off work
A common consequence of a cancer diagnosis is being required to attend tests, appointments and treatments that may interrupt your staff’s usual working routine. It would, for example, be a reasonable adjustment to allow staff time off to attend hospital appointments. You may want to make it clear in your handbook that you would pay for this reasonable time off, so staff know where they stand from a financial perspective too.
Employees may qualify for sick pay if they are too ill to work. If there is a discretion to pay more than Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), it’s important that employers don’t discriminate against employees with cancer, by deciding to only pay SSP. If you are not sure if certain acts could be regarded as unlawful discrimination, it’s always best to get specialist advice first.
Handling difficult conversations, getting the right policies in place and correctly following the law when dealing with employees who have cancer, can be challenging. However, Loch Associates Group’s HR Consultants and Solicitors can support you and your staff throughout, and ensure your managers are prepared and able to deal with these situations when they arise.
Pam Loch, Solicitor and Managing Director, Loch Associates Group