Supporting carers at work

If your employee is looking after someone with cancer, talk to them about your organisation’s policies, their rights as a carer and their options for leave. They may need to take time off work to care for the person with cancer. They may also need time off to look after their own health.

Carers have certain legal rights at work. These include the right to:

  • request flexible working
  • take reasonable time off work to deal with an emergency affecting a dependant
  • protection against discrimination.

There may be other options for taking time off you could offer your employee on top of their legal right to time off in an emergency. This could include flexible working, parental leave (if their child has cancer) or reduced or compressed hours.

If the person they are caring for dies, carers will need time off work to grieve and be with their family. This is sometimes known as compassionate leave.

If your employee is a carer

Your employee may be looking after someone who has cancer. Becoming a carer is often unexpected and can be very emotionally and physically demanding. It can sometimes be very hard to juggle caring and working at the same time. But working carers have legal rights, which aim to help them stay in work. These include the right to time off during an emergency and to request flexible working.

Caring responsibilities may cause absences. An employee might take sick or annual leave when a crisis happens, rather than asking for time off to care for someone with cancer. Often this is because people wrongly believe their caring role isn’t a valid reason to request leave. Or the carer may not feel comfortable telling you they are looking after someone.

Cancer can be unpredictable. Someone with cancer may need long cycles of treatment, with lots of hospital outpatient appointments. So carers may need time off work at short notice.

Side effects and symptoms can also continue after treatment is over, so you may need to be flexible for a while.

As soon as you’re aware that an employee is caring for someone, talk to them about your organisation’s policies, their rights as a carer and their options for leave. Letting them know what you need from them will also help you support them.

Supporting carers

Real examples of how people were supported by their employers when they were looking after someone with cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Supporting carers

Real examples of how people were supported by their employers when they were looking after someone with cancer.

About our cancer information videos

The carer’s own health and wellbeing

Being a carer can have an impact both physically and emotionally, which can affect the carer’s ability to work. They may find it difficult to concentrate or feel tired from lack of sleep. Being a carer can also make existing health problems worse, such as high blood pressure or back problems. So they may need time off to look after their own health. They may even feel guilty or lose confidence if they’re unable to complete their usual work.

Being a carer may also affect their own career development. They may not feel confident about looking for promotion or applying for a new job. Being a carer shouldn’t have a negative effect on an employee’s future job prospects. It will help if you can reassure them about this.

We have more information for people who are caring for someone with cancer.

You can order these from or by calling our support line on 0808 808 00 00.

Legal rights for carers

Flexible working

Flexible working could help make it easier for carers to keep working while caring for someone. It could include changed hours or working from home.

The Children and Families Act 2014 (in England, Scotland and Wales) and The Flexible Working Regulations NI 2015 (in Northern Ireland) means carers can make a request for flexible working. There is no automatic right to work flexibility – the right is to make a request for this. Employers can refuse a request, but only on specified grounds. They must deal with requests in a ‘reasonable manner’. ACAS has a free guide to dealing with flexible working requests reasonably.

Time off in an emergency

Carers in paid employment have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to look after dependants in an emergency. This is covered by the Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended by the Employment Relations Act 1999. It is known as time off for dependants.

In Northern Ireland, these laws are called the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Employment Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1999.

A dependant could be:

  • a mother, father, son, daughter, spouse or civil partner
  • anyone who lives with the person, but is not a tenant, lodger, boarder or employee
  • someone who would reasonably rely on the person to help them if they become ill or need them to make care arrangements for them.

Possible emergencies may include:

  • an unexpected disruption or breakdown in care arrangements
  • the person being cared for becoming ill, giving birth, being injured, being assaulted or having an accident
  • the employee needing to make care arrangements when their dependant is ill or injured (this could include arranging for a temporary carer, but it does not allow them to take extra or ongoing time off to care for the dependant)
  • the death of a dependant
  • having to deal with an unexpected incident that involves their child during school hours.

Carers don’t need to have been in their job for a certain amount of time before they can take time off for dependants. But how much time off they can take depends on the circumstances. For example, an employer may look at what has happened, how close the person’s relationship is to the dependant and whether someone else could help instead.

For someone to use this type of time off, they must tell their employer as soon as possible after the emergency has happened.

Time off for dependants is usually unpaid, unless an employer chooses to pay the person.

Time off for dependants doesn’t apply if the person wants to take planned time off to care for a dependant. For example, if they want to take them to a medical appointment.

Protecting you from discrimination

At work, the Equality Act (in England, Scotland and Wales) and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (in Northern Ireland) can, in certain circumstances, protect carers from:

  • direct disability discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation.

I had a flexible employer who let me work around my husband’s hospital appointments and chemotherapy. I had to switch off from the cancer when I was at work, so it gave me an ‘escape’ as soon as I walked through the office doors.


Other time off for carers

As well as unpaid time off in an emergency, there may be other options you could offer your employee. These could include:

  • compassionate leave
  • parental leave (if their child has cancer)
  • flexible working
  • reduced or condensed hours
  • taking time off that you’re owed, if appropriate.

These options aim to allow your employee to look after their own health, or the health of the person they care for, while keeping your organisation running smoothly. They also protect the employee as much as possible from financial hardship.

Carers UK offers advice on employment issues and rights for carers, including time off. You can call them on 0808 808 7777.

Supporting carers during bereavement

An employee caring for someone who is dying may start to need more time off. You may need to be flexible about this.

When the person they care for dies, they will need time off work to grieve and be with their family. This is sometimes known as compassionate leave.

If there are children who were close to the person who died, your employee will need to give them extra support. It may not always be easy to predict when they will be needed at home.

They may also need time off work to sort out practical things, such as arranging the funeral and dealing with financial or legal matters.

Some people may want to talk about the person who has died, while others may not. Take guidance from your employee. If you have an employee assistance programme at work, let them know about it. You can also suggest they call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00.

Back to If you're an employer

Policies and resources

If one of your employees has cancer or is caring for someone affected by cancer, we have information to help you support them.

Managing cancer in the workplace

In the UK, over 700,000 people of working age are living with cancer. Managers play a fundamental role in supporting employees affected by cancer.

How cancer affects people

Your employee’s ability to work may change after a cancer diagnosis. To support them, it’s helpful to understand how treatment may affect them.

How to talk about cancer at work

Although it may be difficult for your employee to discuss their cancer diagnosis, open communication may enable you to support them.

Time off for your employee

Some people with cancer will be able to continue to work, others will need time off. There are different options to manage absences.

Occupational health advice

Occupational health advisers can help employers assess whether a role needs to be adjusted in light of an employee’s health.

Legal rights about work and cancer

In the UK, there are laws that protect employees with cancer from being treated unfairly in the workplace. This includes discrimination, harassment and victimisation.


Although many people survive cancer, your employee or the person they are caring for may die from their illness.