Preparing line managers to talk with staff affected by cancer

3 minute read time.

For many managers, probably the most difficult aspect of managing employees diagnosed with cancer is having that first conversation – of dealing with the news and offering support. It is a critical moment because how a line manager reacts to the news, at first and then afterwards, has been shown to have a significant impact on whether an employee successfully returns to work. Communication, communication, communication – to twist a familiar mantra – will make a real and significant difference.

 Macmillan is encouraging both employers and employees to have conversations around managing cancer in the workplace, so that where necessary reasonable adjustments can be made. Through these conversations employees will feel supported and measures can be discussed so their rights, as outlined by the Equality Act (or Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland), aren’t compromised. 

It’s important therefore that managers are equipped so they understand the issues and challenges of supporting an employee with cancer as well as their responsibilities under the Equality Act. This will not only benefit their employees, but also makes good business since time and money has been invested in the recruitment and training of those employees. Macmillan provides support  to help employers best support their staff.


But what about employees looking after someone with cancer?

Often their needs are overlooked by employers, but like people living with cancer they are in need of support in the workplace. One area they may need support in first, is in helping them identify as a ‘carer’ – as they may think they’re just looking after a wife, husband, daughter or friend. Often a consequence of not relating to this role (carer) is that they do not realise there is support available to them. By helping your employees identify as a carer you can help them access services and support that they may need.

First and continuing conversations are just as important with these employees. There are thought to be over 500,000 carers juggling work while supporting someone with cancer. A survey undertaken in 2011 showed that 46% of those working while caring for someone experienced emotional or mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. And less than 20% of those working while caring know they have the right to request flexible working and time off in an emergency. Unfortunately many employers don’t have a policy which communicates this or which openly offers support to carers.


So what can you do in HR?

One key requirement is creating a culture where carers feel supported and do not worry about informing their manager or HR that they are looking after someone with cancer. You can begin to do this by ensuring that your organisation’s polices towards carers are clear, accessible and understood by line managers. You might also develop a bespoke carer’s policy. This will encourage carers to self-identify.

Too often working carers worry about losing their job, so will take sick leave in order to cope with emergencies or even planned hospital appointments. Your organisation might also have an Employee Assistance Programme to which you can signpost employees. You should also consider taking up or extending the work and cancer training Macmillan provides HR and line managers. This will help prepare them to have difficult first discussions, not only with those diagnosed with cancer but with carers too.

Of course all of the above applies to working carers in general, not just those affected by cancer. It’s also worth remembering that as we all live and work longer, more and more of us will be required to take on caring responsibilities while we are working.


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