Talking about cancer at work

If your employee has been diagnosed with cancer, they or you may not know how to approach the subject. But it is important to communicate openly so you can support them in the right way.

You should encourage them to meet with their line manager, HR manager, or occupational health provider. When speaking to your employee, it can help to find a private place to talk. Remember to tell them that all information will be dealt with sensitively and confidentially.

It may help to:

  • let your employee take the lead in the conversation
  • ask them how they are feeling
  • ask how much time off they need for appointments
  • discuss what will or won’t be told to their colleagues.

As an employer, you should give them information about:

  • the options for time off
  • policies on flexible working
  • their rights to be protected against discrimination
  • services your organisation offers to help them.

Keep communication open

Some people can find it difficult to talk to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. You often want to help but may not be sure what to say. You may find you have to talk about difficult things with your employee, but it’s important to keep communication open. Not talking will make things harder to deal with.

The person who has cancer may struggle to talk too. Everyone reacts differently when faced with a serious life event. Some people find it easy to talk about their thoughts and feelings, while others are more private.

Cultural differences matter too. Some languages don’t even have a word for cancer. In some communities, it is taboo (something people don’t think they should mention).

Be aware that some people may be embarrassed to discuss the physical details of their cancer. They may prefer to speak to someone who is the same gender.

Some people who are looking after someone with cancer may not think of themselves as a carer. They may also not feel comfortable talking about their personal life in the workplace.

Talking about cancer is difficult at first, but it can be helpful for everyone. There are things you can do to make your conversations easier.

Download the Looking after someone with cancer [PDF] - A practical guide for carers, by carers

First conversations

As soon as you find out that an employee has cancer, or is caring for someone with cancer, encourage them to meet their line manager, HR manager or occupational health provider.

Sometimes it can be helpful to involve more than one of these in the conversation. If your organisation has access to a welfare rights officer, it may also be helpful to involve them early on.

Some people may prefer to meet with someone other than their line manager. This may be because they find this person more neutral or easier to relate to. Or it may be because they are the same gender or age group.

Your employee may wish to have a third party present at this meeting, or any future ones. This may be a colleague, family member, friend or trade union representative. You may want to take notes – this should be handled sensitively so that the meeting is kept confidential. Some employees prefer to look for help themselves and read existing policies, without telling anyone about the cancer. Others find an informal conversation better.

If they can, let your employee take the lead by telling you what has happened.

Be sensitive

Communication is a very individual matter and you will need to think about what you might say to your employee.

Remember, everyone is different and what is appropriate for one person won’t be helpful for someone else. Think about the individual person and their situation.

Getting started

  • Choose a private place to talk and make sure you won’t be interrupted.
  • Be prepared for the meeting to overrun – let your employee set the pace.
  • Show you are listening – use eye contact and encourage conversation by nodding or with verbal cues like, ‘I see’ or ‘what happened next?’.
  • Show it’s okay to be upset by allowing your employee time to express their emotions, and recover if necessary, while remaining calm yourself.
  • Show empathy with phrases like, ‘you sound very upset’.
  • Respond to humour but don’t initiate it – humour can be a helpful coping strategy for people going through a difficult time.
  • End the meeting if your employee becomes too distressed to continue, and say you can talk again when they are ready.

Try not to:

  • be afraid of silence – it’s okay if it goes quiet for a bit
  • be too quick to offer advice
  • use clichés like, ‘things could be worse’ or ‘things will work out’
  • discount your employee’s feelings
  • share stories about other people you know who have cancer – this takes the focus away from your employee.

Keep the conversation going

  • You could ask about how they are feeling – both emotionally and physically. Acknowledge how difficult their situation must be.
  • Check you understand what the person is saying – if you’re unsure what they mean or how they feel, just ask.
  • Don’t judge or offer advice that’s not been asked for – if you must offer advice, pause to consider how helpful it will be.
  • Ask whether they wish colleagues to know and what information should be shared. Respect the person’s feelings and wishes.
  • Ask what sort of time off they might need for medical appointments and during treatment. They may not know at this point – it’s often a case of seeing how things go.

Give them information

  • Let them know the options for time off.
  • Show them organisational policies on reasonable adjustments and returning to work after sick leave. If the person is a carer, they may benefit from seeing the flexible working policy. For people with cancer, flexible working should be arranged as a reasonable adjustment.
  • Let them know about their rights to be protected against discrimination, either because they have cancer or because they are caring for someone with cancer.
  • Give them details of any services your organisation provides to help them, for example an employee assistance programme (EAP) that offers counselling.

Make sure you end the meeting by assuring your employee that their work is valued and your door is always open if they need your help. Agree how you will keep communication open and set a date for the next meeting.

Line managers are often in the best position to speak with an employee affected by cancer. Make sure you look after yourself, as well as the person with cancer. Get support for yourself if you need to.

Talking about cancer at work

Hear people talking about how they told colleagues about their cancer diagnosis. It also contains advice from HR professionals.

Talking about cancer >

Talking about cancer at work

Hear people talking about how they told colleagues about their cancer diagnosis. It also contains advice from HR professionals.

Talking about cancer >

How to tell colleagues

It’s important to talk with your employee early on about what they want their colleagues to know. You need to discuss what will and won’t be mentioned, who will be told and who will do the telling.

Your employee may not wish to tell others they are affected by cancer. This must be your employee’s decision. However, colleagues may be more understanding about absences and any changes in work arrangements if they know what’s happening.

If your employee agrees that others should know, ask them:

  • if they want to give the news themselves
  • who else should do it and whether they want to be present
  • how the news should be communicated, for example one-to-one, in a meeting or by email
  • how much information should be shared and what should stay confidential.

When you are talking to colleagues, concentrate on the impact your employee’s illness may have on people and projects at work.

Try to:

  • avoid personal details
  • use positive language, but be honest about what to expect
  • avoid dramatising
  • discuss with your team about how best to talk to their colleague.

You can suggest staff to speak to you or another manager if they are having practical issues with the situation, or if they are feeling distressed. You could also let them know about the Macmillan Support Line, which can provide more support. Our number is 0808 808 00 00 and it is free to call. If your organisation has an employee assistance programme, that could also be a source of support.

Keep in touch

People living with cancer often feel out of touch with work during their absence. It’s important to keep appropriate contact with your employee during periods of sick leave. This contact could be through their manager or a nominated ‘buddy’. Handle communication carefully. Your employee should still feel valued, but not feel pressured to come back too soon.

Check preferences

If possible, discuss arrangements for keeping in touch with your employee before their absence. Ask them if:

  • they want to receive newsletters and key emails
  • they want to hear from colleagues – and how they can get in contact and how often
  • there is a good time to get in contact.

You should keep reviewing how you keep in touch with your employee. Their needs may change.

Keep to arrangements

Cancer treatment may make it difficult for your employee to be in contact at certain times, and this may only become clear after treatment has started. If you have agreed to call at a certain time on a certain day, keep that arrangement as your employee may have made the effort to be able to take the call.

If your employee doesn’t want work contact

Sometimes an employee may not want any contact. Explore their reasons and reassure them you just want to be supportive. It may simply be because of how they are feeling at that point in time. You can ask them about it again later, when they may find the idea of contact from work less daunting.

Back to If you are an employer

Introduction for employers

Managers play an important role in supporting employees living with cancer, or caring for someone with cancer.

How cancer affects people

Understanding how cancer treatment may affect your employee’s ability to work can help you give them the right support.

Helping your employee back into work

Making small changes to your employee’s working arrangements can make a big difference. It can help them settle back into work successfully.

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.

Supporting carers at work

Carers are legally entitled to take reasonable time off work. They can also request flexible working.