Working while caring for someone with cancer: the issues carers face and how employers can help

How often have we in HR stated in our visions, missions, strategies and policies that ‘our people are our greatest asset’ and /or that we aim to be an ‘employer of choice’? But what does this mean in practice – when our employees have to cope with life’s misfortunes and emergencies?

These days many employers spend time developing family friendly policies, flexible benefits, and health and wellbeing strategies that reflect our changing culture and lifestyle. Clearly legislation and shareholder interest in Corporate Social Responsibility have played a part in encouraging some of this. Senior managers expect these policies to be put in place but at the same time require them to be competitive yet cost effective, compassionate yet commercially justifiable.

But one area that still seems to be overlooked in this family friendly world is the role of carers. With an aging population and people working longer, caring for someone is going to be an increasing feature of our working lives. As recent headlines have told us, 50% of those diagnosed with cancer today will live for at least 10 years, but more and more of us are being diagnosed - two million at present, an expected 4 million by 2030. The number of people of working age with cancer, currently estimated at 750,000 will also more than double over that period and consequently, the number of working carers supporting a dependant with cancer (currently estimated at 500,000) is bound to increase.

 Caring for someone with cancer carries enormous burdens. Carers have to deal with a wide variety of practical as well as emotional and psychological issues. They have to cope with the constant ups and downs of diagnosis, treatment and prognosis, but remain positive, sensitive and robust. They may suddenly be juggling a busy and demanding job with reduced finances, child care, elderly parents, mortgage payments, shopping, cooking and cleaning, attending planned and last minute medical appointments, and all the while being relentlessly upbeat. They will be worrying about their job and at the same time be trying to cope with a loved one’s potentially fatal illness. The stresses and strains are immense. So what can you do as an employer to help? Here are three things you can do:

  • First and foremost, introduce a carers’ policy – like the one on the Macmillan website.  You can apply it to all forms of caring, not just to cancer. This must also encourage carers to let their line manager know if they are trying to combine work with caring for someone with cancer. It’s only then, that the organisation can properly support them.
  • Ensure your policy is at least in line with existing legislation and that line managers as well as HR are aware of this. Your policies should allow carers to request flexible working and time off in an emergency. Managers should also be made aware of how the Equality Act (England, Scotland and Wales) and Disability Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland) apply to carers as well as to those with cancer.
  • Make the Macmillan work and cancer toolkit available to all line managers and employees; why not publicise it on your intranet, and ensure that carers know that their needs are covered by the toolkit.

 Being an ‘employer of choice’ should not be an empty phrase; it implies you have policies which put this into practice. Having a carer’s policy, and then publicising and implementing it so that carers know they are truly supported, is an excellent example of this.

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


  • I have had to get a sick note to enable me to care for my daughter Our occupational health dept actually said that I would be putting the gp in a difficult position if I requested this. I am apparently not ill but merely reacting to a situation
  • It's important to be aware of your legal rights as a carer. You have the right to request flexible working and time of in an emergency. For more information please check out this page