It’s no secret that cancer is a seriously debilitating condition, and not something that we would wish upon anybody. Sadly, over 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year. This disease can change the entire direction of somebody’s life – including their career.
Employees battling cancer have numerous rights under the Equality Act of 2010. An employee with cancer is immediately considered disabled and is entitled to the workplace protections that this status affords.
Naturally, employees with cancer will also require long-term sick leave. It is essential that this is managed in a legally compliant – and empathetic – manner.
An employee with cancer will obviously need to take time off work for treatment. This may involve surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
How long the employee is signed off varies depending on their personal circumstances. A healthcare professional will advise on this. The employee will be provided with a ‘Fitness Note’, which explains if the individual is fit to work or not – and, if the employee is deemed unfit for work, for how long.
Financial matters will be a key concern for an employee with cancer, as well as a business. Long-term sickness can have a significant impact on an employee’s salary.
Employers are legally obliged to pay anybody on sick leave Statutory Sick Pay. This is paid at a rate of £89.35 per week, beginning after four consecutive days of sick leave. Statutory Sick Pay runs for a maximum of 28 weeks. When this period expires, the employee can investigate the possibility of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). ESA is not part of Universal Credit, with claims handled separately.
As a business, you may also have a policy in place surrounding sickness. Your employee may be contractually entitled to full pay during a period of sickness. This could be for a set period of days, weeks or even years. This is at your discretion.
You cannot reduce the pay entitlement of an employee outlined in their contract, but you can increase it if you desire. Discuss this with your Human Resources department. If you wish to support an employee throughout their treatment, there is nothing to say that you cannot offer full pay for the duration of their sick leave.
Contact can be key for an employee with cancer. The individual’s life will have been turned upside down by their diagnosis. Contact with the workplace can maintain a level of structure and normality. All the same, this can be a tightrope. There is a thin line between offering support and being seen as applying pressure.
Before your employee begins sick leave, ask what level of contact they would appreciate – and from whom. The point of liaison could be the employee’s line manager, the Human Resources department, or a colleague that is designated as a ‘buddy’ throughout the sick leave.
Ask the employee how they would like to be contacted, how often, and when. Would they appreciate a weekly phone call? Would they prefer to be emailed a company newsletter? Would they like to be consulted on key decisions? What is the best time of day to get in touch?
Some employees may not want any contact at all while on sick leave. They may prefer to concentrate on recovery, with no distractions. Legally, you are entitled to contact your employee when their Fitness Note expires to ask if they will be returning, or whether they are to be signed off for longer. Other than this, respect your employee’s wishes and avoid contact.
Eventually, with luck, your employee will conclude their sick leave and look to return to work. This must be managed appropriately. Remember, your employee remains protected under the Equality Act.
The key element of the Equality Act is to protect employees with cancer from unfair discrimination. This encompasses all elements of the workplace, from applying for a role to performance reviews, promotions and salary increases.
Some examples of illegal discrimination against an employee with cancer include:
When your employee gets in touch to discuss a return to work, act with empathy and understanding. An employee that has gone through chemotherapy, for example, will experience severe fatigue and other side effects. This must be respected and managed. Consider a staged return to work, with the employee initially completing reduced hours or working flexibly.
Your employee may also be physically weakened by their treatment, at least temporarily. If their workload includes manual labour, it may be advisable to discuss this with the employee and offer alternative duties. This must be handled with care – it is illegal to make your employee feel as though they have been demoted. Equally, however, safety is paramount. Have an open and honest dialogue with your employee and find a solution that meets the needs of both parties.
For many cancer survivors, returning to work is a welcome return to the structure of their life pre-diagnosis. Act in a supportive and empathetic manner to ensure this is the case. This way, you will not just be legally compliant, you will also be aiding a valuable employee during the most testing period of their life.