What is ‘Chemo brain’ – and how can you support an employee who is affected by it?

3 minute read time.

Chemo brain refers to the cognitive changes that people with cancer may experience before, during and after cancer treatment. These changes may include having trouble with mental tasks related to attention span, thinking, and short-term memory. Many people describe this as a mental fog. The condition is common in cancer patients and survivors, and sometimes it continues for quite a while after treatment.

Chemo brain is quite a common condition, but of course that’s no consolation to people affected by it. In a busy work environment, even the simplest tasks can seem difficult to accomplish and get right. Making what seem to be silly, unforced, mistakes quickly undermines an employee’s confidence – and naturally, it can sometimes affect a manager’s confidence in their employee too. This in turn can affect how quickly and effectively your employee returns to work.

So, as an employer, how can you help an employee experiencing this condition?

  • Encourage your employee to make lists on a notepad or smartphone e.g. deadlines for the day, phone calls to make or return, appointments to attend.

  • Manage your expectations as well as their expectations of themselves. You may remember – and long to have back – your employee as they were before they went off sick. Perhaps they were an employee who was working perfectly well, who was the ‘fount of all knowledge’, who always met deadlines. During their treatment, or on their immediate return to work, your employee’s memory might seem unaffected, but it probably will be to an extent. Unfortunately, neither you nor your employee can know how long this will continue. So be prepared.

  • Give people longer to complete tasks, especially tasks like online training programmes or learning new systems or processes. Some online training programmes have time limits for completing them. You will need to make reasonable adjustments, like giving your employee longer to complete a programme, or letting them do it in a quiet room, in order to cater for your employee’s condition.

  • Stress makes chemo brain worse, so see what you can do to help your employee manage their stress levels and help them minimise stressful situations - for example, a busy day with customers, lots of travel, tight deadlines. Putting more pressure on someone who is already suffering from chemo brain – like sitting with them while they undertake a task – is unlikely to be helpful. It’s better to find a friendly and sympathetic colleague to help them out – your employee may already have a ‘go-to’ person who can do this.

  • Talk to your employee regularly about how they are coping and what you and/or your organisation could do to help them. For example, it will help if they only take on more demanding tasks during periods when they are most alert and not overtired. Equally, if they’d prefer to work from home (and it’s feasible for them to do so), then let them do that.

So as you can see, there are a number of things you can do to support an employee suffering with chemo brain. Research is still going on to find an effective treatment so, while this is the case, be alert to this condition and, if need be, seek advice and support from Macmillan or organisations like Working With Cancer

For more Macmillan information on chemo brain, visit the Macmillan website. For more information on our resources and training to help support staff with cancer, please visit www.macmillan.org.uk/atwork

For more information, sign up to Macmillan at Work. As well as providing employers with free information and resources, Macmillan can also provide training for HR and line managers. You can email us at workandcancer@macmillan.org.uk

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

  • Useful article, thanks!! Now to find a gentle way to get this info to my employer.....

  • FormerMember

    Yes I agree how to get this information gently to my manager.

  • FormerMember

    Great article. I would add that I suffer from cognitive impairment after treatment, and would argue it does not only just affect those who have had chemo. I had major surgery for my cancer, and my local Maggies Centre and the Beatson Specialist Work Service team have both stressed that the trauma on the brain means cognitive impairment is very common regardless of the type of treatment a patient has received for their cancer. It would be great if the literature to support employers could cover this - the difficulty in calling it chemo brain means employers may believe mental fog only affects those who have had chemo.