This is a question to which there is no quick fix as it’s really about changing organisational attitudes and behaviour.  Support from the top makes a big difference, and too often it is the case that this only really happens when those people have been affected personally. I think there are three major areas where HR can contribute a great deal to effecting change:

 1.       Making the case to the top team, appealing to their sense of enlightened self interest

2.       Putting some basic policies and processes in place

3.       Taking a number of practical, operational actions

 Making the case

About 2 in every 100 employees are living with a cancer diagnosis so a Company with 1000 employees might have 20 or so employees in this situation – excluding carers, i.e. those who support a family member or close friend.  These numbers are significant and growing. For individual employers not having an employee return to work leads to additional recruitment and training costs. Moreover, dealing sensitively and competently with such cases increases not only those employees’ morale and sense of loyalty but that of colleagues too. 

 Basic policies and processes

Here are 3 key steps HR can take:

  1. Develop a clear policy based on the Company’s values, which has the CEO’s endorsement. This could be part of a wider Health and Wellbeing initiative, which could include how to manage employees who are able to work but who have ‘chronic health conditions’. Macmillan has a template policy on their website which you could use as a starting point.  
  2. Once agreed, this could then be described (at least in outline) in the employee handbook.
  3. The third step is to brief line managers, HR and other relevant groups (like Occupational Health). Macmillan can be of help in a number of ways, providing training sessions, work and cancer toolkits which can be held in local offices, and links to their website to be accessed from the company intranet. And the more the CEO can endorse the better!

 In practice

In practice, HR has lots of options in terms of providing practical support. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Keeping and analysing data on employees with cancer or other forms of chronic illness as well as data on return to work
  • Creating checklists for line managers and HR about how to manage work and cancer (or other chronic conditions) and sharing ‘case studies’ amongst HR
  • Emailing Macmillan’s  ‘top tips for line managers’ in the work and cancer toolkit to all managers when they are supporting someone affected by cancer  
  • Using the company website and/or newsletter to celebrate employees returning to work after cancer and the line managers who’ve helped them do this.

HR can make a real contribution to helping people return to work after cancer – we hope this gives you food for thought!

Do you have a question about work and cancer? Email us on workandcancer@macmillan.org.uk.

More information is also available at www.macmillan.org.uk/work

Anonymous
  • Dear Penelope

    First of all I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your husband and the issues you experienced with your HR department at what sounds like such a difficult time.  I have to say that my blog assumed that departments would get these very basic things right, and I’m so sorry that in this instance it seems they did not at all.

    Coping with the death of a loved one is in my personal opinion (and experience) the most difficult thing we as individuals ever have to face, and HR departments should be as capable of dealing well with these situations as with any other.

    For those of you who are currently working in HR, you should be aware that Macmillan has produced a video to help employers manage bereavement and there is also the dedicated section on supporting bereavement in the workplace.

    As to the statistic I quoted – that 2 in every 100 employees are living (and working) with a cancer diagnosis- it is correct based on work done by Macmillan and the Office for National Statistics, but Penelope, you are right in saying that as people survive cancer, get older and work longer, more and more will be living and working with cancer.  In addition to this, there are over 500,000 carers trying to combine work whilst caring for someone with cancer so clearly there are many people affected by cancer in some way or another. It is all the more important therefore for employers, and HR departments in particular, to understand the issues around cancer and at the same time demonstrate some humanity and basic common sense.

    On a more personal note, you may benefit from talking to someone who really understands what you’re going through. Macmillan has a team of experts who can answer any questions you have, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. You can call them free on 0808 808 00 00.

  • I would like to comment on Things HR could do. As background both my husband, who was diagnosed with terminal, Oesophagus cancer , and died 8 months later, and I worked for the same company for over 30 years. Whilst he was ill, we were both able to work from home when necessary, or in the office when possible. ........ brilliant . But after his death, HR was shocking - I am sure my big Multi National company's HR department was taking statistics, completing check lists, making graphs but this is what they were not doing.......... contacting me about pension benefits, death in service, when the last pay would be; talking to me; making sure they did not continue to send mails TO my husband; making it impossible to apply for probate because they would not release information about shares in the company until I had probate ( a ridiculous situation) ; No personnel manager ever even talked to me let alone actually asking me face- to - face how I felt and how I was coping ........ just because I came back full time 3 weeks after his death does NOT mean I am coping even if work is OK; how about phoning and offering a phased return ( grief is the most exhausting thing that has ever happened to me - worse than the first months of a baby); how about meeting me face to face on my return; how about NOT continuing to send payslips addressed to him (money helpful but address on envelope a knife through the heart each time) ......... My company is brilliant but the death of my husband is the most catastrophic thing that has ever happened to me - 15 months on, I struggle to get through each and every day but I compartmentalise and hide it well ..... I also think you are incorrect with your 2% of employees affected because most cancers are still in older people, many of whom no longer work ... though the numbers will rise as we are all forced to work till we drop before receiving our pensions......