An unsupportive boss

Hi, I was diagnosed with stage 3 endometrial cancer in April and had a full hysterectomy in May. I am currently undergoing chemotherapy every 3 weeks. I have been extremely fortunate that the main side effects I have experienced are severe pins and needles and numbness in my hands and feet and chronic fatigue. Radiotherapy will also follow chemotherapy. I have tried to remain as positive as possible throughout my treatment but at times my mental health has been affected. 

My boss has been in contact on a weekly basis to update me on work related issues and to assess when I will be able to return to work. I gave my permission for an occupational health assessment to be undertaken from the outset but I have not yet been referred. I understand a back to work plan has been put in place but I am not aware of its content. 

During the last conversation she began to pressurise me into accepting a home computer so I could undertake work during chemo sessions. I reiterated that I had never worked from home during the pandemic as I did not have adequate space and have discussed work with my oncologist on more than one occasion and told I needed to concentrate on my treatment and recovery at the moment.

She ends every conversation saying she will continue to support my absence for at the moment but this may change going forward. 

I have continually had to request copies of weekly discussions and am still awaiting sight of the back to work plan. I have now requested that conversations are held monthly as I am finding the whole situation very stressful and am questioning myself whether to continue with treatment. 

Any advice you can give would be very much appreciated. 

  • Dear ,

    My name is Emma and I am an adviser on the Work Support team here on the Macmillan Support Line. I am very sorry to hear your boss is putting you under so much pressure to return to work. You certainly should not be made to feel that you should give your treatment up due to the pressure you are under. I am hoping that the advice I give you will help you agree a way forward.

    If you are not already aware, due to your cancer diagnosis you are protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales (Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland). If you have not seen it already, you may find it useful to read our booklet “Your Rights At Work When Affected By Cancer” as this goes into more detail around your rights.

    I recognise you have reiterated to your boss the medical advice you have been given to concentrate on your treatment. I am wondering if your boss is aware of the amount of pressure you feel under because of your discussions with them? If not, you could let them know how you are feeling. Whilst some cancer patients can work through treatment, this is not always the case as individuals do react differently to it. You can acknowledge whilst their intentions are to support you, at present the pressure of starting back at work is affecting your mental health, as you are not yet physically ready and particularly as you feel under pressure that this support may be removed on a weekly basis.

    Asking for your discussions to be held monthly to protect your mental health also sounds sensible. Although there are no laws as to how often employers should be in touch with absent employees, you should check to see if your work has any policies in place that might state how often contact should be agreed for someone on long term sick leave.

    You might find it useful to share our booklet “Managing Cancer In The Workplace” with your boss, as it discusses how people with cancer are affected by their treatment and what they can do to support you.

    It is also vital for you to be involved in any return to work plan as well as to obtain expert medical advice as to whether you may need any reasonable adjustments at work.  If you feel it would be useful to put any request in writing, the Equality Advisory Support Service have a template letter you could use. Expert medical advice can either be in the form of an Occupational Health referral or a fit note from a GP which says you are fit for work but also details what adjustments you need.  Whilst I do not know your job role, you have mentioned that it involves a computer. You have also mentioned the pins and needles you are experiencing in your hands and feet as well as the severe fatigue you are experiencing. An Occupational Health referral might recommend a keyboard for example, which might help with the pins and needles you are experiencing. You could also ask Access to Work for an assessment as they may provide grants towards things that would aid your return. A good return to work plan should also be flexible, as your needs may alter as you gradually rebuild your resilience. Ideally this should involve regular check ins with your boss to see how you are going forward and alter your plan accordingly.

    If you are not able to agree a satisfactory way forward with your boss I wonder if there is anyone else that you could speak to about how you feel, such as their line manager or an HR representative? Are you perhaps a member of a union and could ask for their support? If you are unable to resolve the situation, then you may need to raise a grievance. Please do come back to us for further advice if this is the case.

    When someone is unable to return to work for a long time due to illness, their employer may look to dismiss them under capability grounds. To be fair and legal an employer should consider if the employee can return to work within a reasonable time, whether any reasonable adjustments can be made and should also follow a fair process. For this reason, if you are referred to Occupational Health whilst it is important not to lie, it is also important to give positive messages around your planned return to work. If you do feel that your employer may be considering a capability process, then please do come back to us for more support.

    I hope this gives you enough to be able to negotiate the space and the time you need to recover as well as a successful return to work plan. If you do need any further support you can either reply to this message, contact us via email, live chat or phone us. Our number is 0808 808 0000 and we are available from 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

    Kind regards,

    Work Support Advisor
    Remember you can also speak with the Macmillan Support Line team of experts. Phone free on 0808 808 0000 (7 days a week, 8am-8pm) or by email