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Published 10 April 2024
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Working With Cancer or a Disability: Has Your Company Got Your Back?

Communicating your needs at work when you have a serious illness or disability can be daunting. Learn what red flags to look out for to see if an employer is supportive and how to approach these sensitive discussions.

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Navigating day-to-day life with a disability or a serious illness such as cancer can be overwhelming. Add a lack of support from your employer, and it’s an even bigger mountain to climb.

In the UK, 10.21 million people of working age (16 to 64) reported that they had a disability between October and December 2023. That’s nearly a quarter of the working-age population, according to the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey. And 5.53 million working-age people with a disability reported being employed.

People working with cancer, in particular, may need surgery, as well as chemotherapy or radiotherapy for extended periods. This can complicate their return-to-work plans and require additional support from their employer.

According to the 2022 Cancer and Employment Survey from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), nearly three quarters of respondents returned to work after completing cancer treatment. Up to 40% of those surveyed reported that they had worked during treatment. Working during treatment, however, was less likely among workers in manual or unskilled jobs and those under age 60, the IES survey found.

Alarmingly, only 57% of survey respondents who went back to work knew about the 2010 Equality Act and its specific protections for disabled workers who need reasonable adjustments at work.

But what’s driving this lack of awareness among employees?

“The main barrier is the knowledge base among employers,” says Sally Wilson, a principal research fellow at IES, where she is the head of workplace health and wellbeing research. “Smaller industries may not have a bespoke HR function, so the likelihood of them understanding the law, the adjustments that could be put in place and good practices is less likely. That leads to inconsistency.”

How employers can support workers who are disabled or ill


Whether an employee is undergoing cancer treatment or has another serious illness or disability, there are several ways employers can accommodate them. Some reasonable work adjustments include:

Above all, flexibility is key, according to Amelia Peckham, co-founder of Cool Crutches, a mobility aid company that supports those living with long-term injuries and disabilities.

“If you live with a disability, flexibility is a non-negotiable,” Peckham, who became permanently disabled at age 19 due to a spinal injury, said via email. “It should, ideally, be available to everyone, but at worst, anyone with a disability should be given the flexibility to support health fluctuations and prevent unnecessary physical or mental stress [that] could restrict their potential.”

Peckham said that employers should consider a three-pronged approach to disability support: mental, physical and social. They can achieve this, she added, by offering benefits such as medical insurance, health memberships, fitness training and mental health therapy, among others.

Wilson adds that employers’ flexibility may need to extend beyond the initial diagnosis and treatment.

“Often, the treatment can be worse than the condition itself,” says Wilson. “It’s about constantly reviewing where somebody is with their treatment, how it’s affecting them and what level of flexibility they need.”

3 signs that a firm may not offer adequate disability support 

If you’re job hunting or fairly new to a role, there are a few red flags that could indicate a workplace isn’t fully supportive of disabled employees. These include:

How to get support at work

As soon as you have a diagnosis, it’s important to sit down with your manager and advocate for your needs. Here are some tips from Macmillan Cancer Support, the UK cancer charity, to get the conversation going:

  1. Tell your employer: Sharing your diagnosis is the critical first step to creating a work plan. The conversation will likely start with your direct supervisor, but may also involve an HR manager, an occupational health adviser and/or your trade union representative. Your employer should try to support you because of equality laws, including making reasonable adjustments.
  2. Understand the details: Get as much information about your condition, your treatment and treatment schedule. Having these details can help you find workable solutions with your employer.
  3. Know your rights: Working with cancer comes with additional rights under law. In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 covers employees with disabilities, including those who have cancer from discrimination in the workplace. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and its extension, the Disability Discrimination Order 2006, apply to workers in Northern Ireland. It’s worth noting that carers have some protections, too.
  4. Research company policies: Check your company’s guidelines and sickness policies before speaking to your employer. Make sure you clarify anything you don’t understand. If you belong to a trade union, ask for help reviewing the policies.
  5. Get organised: Before having a conversation with your manager, jot down your key talking points so you cover everything you want to discuss and take notes during meetings (or record them, if virtual and permitted), so everyone is on the same page.
  6. Stay in touch: If you expect to be out for an extended period for treatments or recovery, decide (with your manager) how and how often you’d like to stay in touch. 

Cancer and work: Resources to help

If you need more advice or support, below are some organisations to contact:

Image source: Getty Images

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