Work and cancer

People with cancer are currently 1.4 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.

Work is important for people with cancer. There are not only financial and social benefits of being in work, but also strong evidence that good work has a positive impact on people’s health and recovery.

Cancer and its treatment affect people differently and so the ability to return to work varies greatly between people with cancer. In many cases, however, it is not the effects of the illness or its treatment that stops people with cancer from returning to work, but an absence of the right support. A consequence of this is that many people with cancer fall out of work unnecessarily.

  • 1 in 3 (or 750,000) people with cancer in the UK are of working age.
  • This is estimated to rise to 1.7 million by 2030.
  • 85% of people with cancer, who were in work when diagnosed, say it is important to work.
  • People with cancer are currently 1.4 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.

Why is this?

A lack of information

  • People with cancer currently struggle to get information from their healthcare teams about the impact that cancer or its treatment will have on their work and how to overcome this.
  • Many people living with cancer are unaware of their rights at work when they have cancer under the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales and under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland.


Unsupportive employers

Employers don’t always understand how best to support someone with cancer or that they have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for employees with cancer under equalities legislation.


Lack of access to rehabilitation

There is a lack of co-ordinated support to help people remain at work, including a lack of work-focussed rehabilitation.

  • Macmillan research has found that only 2% of people with cancer have access to vocational rehabilitation.

What can be done

Men wearing high-vis jackets and hard hats, talking. The text reads 'Employers'. More info


Initial research carried out by Macmillan with large employers (>250 employees) found nearly a fifth of line managers felt either quite or very uncomfortable talking about cancer. Further findings indicated a relatively weak understanding of cancer as an illness and its effects in the workplace, with 90% of line managers saying they would benefit from additional resources or support, both online and offline, as well as access to more bespoke face-to-face support.

In response to these findings and subsequent market research, Macmillan set up a programme of information, training and resources for employers called Macmillan at Work. Macmillan also carries out awareness-raising with employers, to help reduce the stigma of cancer in the workplace, and shift employer perceptions.

To support the retention of people with cancer who want to stay in or return to work after treatment, we need to see employers:

  • Demonstrating proactive leadership to ensure their workplaces have appropriate HR policies in place, and that policies are applied flexibly by their HR and line managers, to support the retention of staff with cancer.
  • Ensuring HR and line managers have the skills and capacities to manage staff with disabilities and long-term health conditions, including educating line managers understand their obligations under Equalities legislation and their duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with cancer.
  • Promoting the importance of ongoing line manager communication with employees affected by cancer, so that there is a firm understanding of what support an employee affected by cancer may need to stay in or return to work when they are ready and able to do so.
  • Improving their understanding of the benefits to their businesses of supporting staff with disabilities and other long-term health conditions.

Resources for Employers

If you're an employer you can support staff through training, policy development and resources. Macmillan at Work can help you manage cancer in the workplace.

Photographs of Westminster, Holyrood (the view over Edinburgh), Stormont and the Senedd. More info


The Government has pledged to close the disability gap and to support more people with disabilities and health conditions, including cancer to remain in or return to work.

This offers a real opportunity to work with the health service, employers and others to bring about the far-reaching change necessary to create a fairer work environment for all.

England, Scotland and Wales

Macmillan is working to influence the Green Paper on Disability, Health and Work to ensure the needs of people with cancer are considered and met.

Northern Ireland

Macmillan is working with the Northern Ireland Cancer Network to deliver a Work Support and Vocational Rehabilitation Project over an initial two year period.

The project seeks to raise awareness of the need for work support for those affected by cancer and to enhance service coordination and integration to address the issue. The Work and Cancer steering group has representatives from a broad range of sectors including cancer services, occupational health, business and Northern Ireland government (Department of Health and Department of Communities).

We work with Governments

We work with Government and politicians across the UK to improve care and support at every stage of the cancer journey.

Jacqueline, Macmillan Welfare Rights Officer, talks to a man. Text reads: The health service. More info

The health service

As well as building more supportive workplaces, more needs to be done to ensure that the health systems across the UK recognise the importance of good work and see work as a health outcome. This should lead to change across the whole health service from workforce training to encouraging conversations about work with patients to enable them to access work support from diagnosis.

There also needs to be improved access to work-focussed rehabilitation such as occupational health or vocational rehabilitation services so that people can get the health interventions they need to continue to work.

Resources for Health and Social Care Professionals

We need professionals like you to direct people to the information and support they need so they can make informed decisions about work.


Key reports

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