Top tips on how to support a colleague during and after cancer treatment

3 minute read time.

Cancer is having a huge impact within the workplace and this will continue and increase for the foreseeable future. Although long-term absence[1] (lasting over four weeks) only accounts for 5% of all absence episodes, it typically accounts for 30–40% of total working time lost. In 2013 it was estimated to cost the UK £4bn per annum. Cancer represents a significant cause of long-term absence for manual workers (29%) and among non-manual employees is the second most frequently reported cause of long-term absence. And with the number of cancer survivors expected to increase from 2.5 million to 4 million by 2030, being equipped to support staff affected by cancer will become even more important.

Line managers play a crucial role in helping employees return to work.  They are often the first point of contact, are responsible for the employee’s day-to-day work experience, are key to the successful implementation of workplace adjustments and their conduct can influence the behaviour of others at work, which in itself can either cause or reduce workplace stress.

Providing support for a staff member during and after cancer treatment should not be difficult if an organisation:

  • Has a clear policy and process in place for supporting employees, their managers and their wider teams both during and after a period of long-term sickness absence. This should include the importance of creating an agreed but flexible return to work plan.
  • Is prepared to tailor that process to the individual’s circumstances (within reason of course) given that it typically takes well over a year to recover from cancer.
  • Communicates the policy and process throughout the organisation, top down, so that no-one is in any doubt about accepted good practice.

Here are some more specific top tips for line managers and HR:

  • Train line managers to encourage communication, provide information, keep in touch, be empathetic and supportive, and to get help from HR, Occupational Health or other third parties as needed. This training should also include a basic understanding of legal responsibilities as set out in the Equality Act 2010 (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 if you live in Northern Ireland) and about workplace adjustments in particular.
  • Make sure line managers are supported to have structured, timely, empathetic but business-like conversations with the employee about how best to support them. These should be at least at the point of diagnosis, just before the start of active treatment, 3–4 weeks before the individual’s return to work, after their return, for as long as it takes!
  • Involve the team (with the employee’s permission) in supporting the employee – not only in providing cover but, for example, in allowing them time off to visit the employee in hospital or at home.
  • Provide one-to-one coaching to support the employee to deal with the physical and emotional challenges of returning to work.
  • Establish support groups within the organisation to provide peer support to all those affected by cancer. A support group can be backed up by a dedicated intranet site that includes information on health and well-being policies and examples of good practice.

It is important to remember employees continue to face difficulties returning to work after cancer – a recent You Gov. survey commissioned by Macmillan showed that nearly 1 in 5 face some type of discrimination from their employer or colleagues. In addition, more than a third (35%) reported other negative experiences, such as feeling guilty for having to take time off for medical appointments or a loss of confidence in their ability to do their job.

You and your organisation can play a major role in changing this for the better, and in providing a working environment that will attract and retain talented and skilled employees.

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

For more information around work and cancer visit, or email the team on

[1] Data drawn from CIPD Report June 2010: manager support for return to work following long-term sickness absence and CBI Report 2013: Fit for purpose: absence and workplace health survey