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

More information is also available at