Is your long-term sickness policy fit for work and cancer?

If you read my blog in March you’ll recall I wrote that, ‘returning to work is not a sprint, it’s more like a marathon and sometimes there need to be pauses along the way to draw breath. It’s not a seamless progression, but a long and winding road. The reason for this is because many cancer treatments have significant, long-term consequences. Some side effects do not become apparent until after treatment has finished. Some may result from the medication you are required to take and there are also emotional and psychological side effects that can persist for many years.’


Given the above, it might be worth your while taking a look at two aspects of your sickness absence policy: your ‘phased return to work’ process and your ‘long-term sickness’ policy.


Phased return to work


Most companies operate a ‘phased return to work’ process for employees who have been absent on sick leave for over four weeks. Typically these run over a period of up to three months and allow someone to gradually build up their hours and responsibilities so that at the end of the period in question they are back to their original job and hours of work. It also allows employees to build up their resilience. The metaphor I use is allowing people to paddle and then swim in the shallow end of the swimming pool rather than chucking them in at the deep end! The problem is that it usually takes longer than 12 weeks to recover from cancer, often significantly longer. Sometimes people get through the first 12 weeks of their return quite well, and only after that begin to hit a really difficult patch of fatigue, pain or anxiety. Asking for more time to recover after a formal ‘phased return’ has been completed is not easy. The individual often feels a failure and employers may reinforce this unknowingly as in, and this is a real example of what one of my clients was told, ‘Well, maybe you are not the person you used to be’! So my advice is do not try and impose a standard ‘phased return’ for any long-term, chronic illness, especially for cancer. It needs to be tailored to the individual’s needs and it may need to be much longer than three months, with reasonable adjustments to hours and duties required for a year or more.


Long-term sickness policy


Having reviewed several sickness policies over the last few years, I have often been intrigued by the tone of some of them – maybe it’s because I’ve had cancer and I am biased, but take a look at yours. Many policies assume a tone which is disciplinary, almost punitive in nature. Is this really what you intend? While there are a minority of people who may feign illness, in most cases people on long-term sickness absence are genuinely ill. If, after several weeks’ sickness absence, the first proper contact with the company is to be invited into the office for a conversation with the line manager and HR, that seems to me to be too little too late. The issue here is that long-term sickness policies often overlap with disciplinary policies. But they are different and it is important to ensure that you keep them separate otherwise you will be in danger of punishing or discriminating against valued employees who are genuinely sick and need the company’s support rather than censure.


For further advice about implementing a phased return to work or long-term sickness policy, please contact Macmillan work and cancer at or look at our template policies here



Barbara Wilson is Founder of Working with Cancer. For more information, visit