Introduction for employers

In the UK, more than 123,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year. ‘Working age’ generally means people aged from 16 to 64. Macmillan also estimates there are 700,000 employees caring for someone with cancer in the UK.

Work is important for many people with cancer or caring for someone with cancer, for lots of reasons. Going to work can give a sense of normality to their life, and it can also help with recovery.

Managers and employers play an important role in supporting people with cancer and their carers. This can often be done by making reasonable adjustments to the workplace or working patterns. But you may not always feel confident about how best to support them. This may be because of practical issues, or because the situation emotionally affects you. There is information and support available to help you.

Some simple first steps could be to:

  • check your policies are up to date
  • provide training for managers
  • educate employees
  • raise awareness of cancer.

Supporting employees affected by cancer can make a huge difference to them. It can also mean you meet your legal obligations and has many benefits for organisations.

Key facts

Cancer affects many people who work, as the diagram below shows. By ‘working age’ we generally mean people aged from 16 to 64. But because of the data available, some of the figures below are for people aged 15 to 64.

Work and cancer in the UK
Work and cancer in the UK

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It is not only employees living with cancer who are affected. Employees who are carers may also need to change how or when they work. A carer is someone who provides unpaid support to someone who could not manage without this help. Macmillan estimates that more than 125,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. ‘Working age’ generally means people aged from 16 to 64. It also estimated that there are around 700,000 employees in the UK caring for someone with cancer.

But employers can make a huge difference to the working lives of people affected by cancer. This can often be done by making reasonable adjustments to the workplace or working patterns. More than two thirds of organisations that make these adjustments consider them to be easy.

The importance of work

Work is important for many people living with cancer, for lots of reasons. A job can restore normality, routine, stability, social contact and income. Remaining in, or returning to, work can also help with recovery and lead to better health. Being able to work is also important to carers for similar reasons.

At Macmillan, we know that managers and employers play an important role in supporting people with cancer and their carers. But you may not always feel confident about how best to support them. There can be challenges at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, when returning to work and afterwards.

We also recognise you need to meet the needs of other people in the workplace and your organisation as a whole. In these difficult situations, you may be affected in both a practical and personal way. Our information can help.

I wanted to go back to work as it is something I love. It helped me feel that life was carrying on as normal.


Benefits of being supportive

Being supportive of your employee affected by cancer will make a huge difference to them as they go through this difficult time. You can help reduce their anxiety and give them the confidence to cope with cancer at work.

There are other clear benefits of supporting people affected by cancer at work:

  • Maintaining efficiency – You can keep their valuable skills, knowledge and experience, and maintain productivity.
  • Saving time and money – You avoid the cost and time of replacing and training employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimates the median cost of recruitment is £6,000 for senior managers and directors, and £2,000 for other employees.
  • Being inclusive – Supporting someone with cancer helps you understand the needs of employees affected by cancer, including those who are carers.
  • Better engagement – You will promote a greater sense of loyalty from your employee and their colleagues. This will naturally have a positive impact on employee engagement.
  • Reducing pressure – You can reduce pressure on the rest of the team who might otherwise have to take on more work or train new employees.
  • Positive image – A company or organisation that supports employees affected by cancer may be more attractive to job applicants and customers.
  • Fulfilling your legal obligations – People affected by cancer have legal rights at work under the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland. Meeting your obligations under these laws will help avoid potential discrimination compensation. It will also help avoid the cost of management time, legal fees and potential damage to reputation.

I cared for her as a colleague and knew that supporting her through her experience would have a really positive impact on her and her pupils.


Simple first steps you can take

Making reasonable adjustments is a legal obligation and can make a big difference to your staff and your organisation.

Reasonable adjustments could include:

  • allowing time off for medical appointments
  • offering flexible working hours
  • organising a phased return to work.

These changes are normally easy to make. Many adjustments are free and where there is some cost, it’s usually small. Grants from Access to Work schemes can cover some or all of the cost.

These changes don’t have to be disruptive. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference for your employee.

Check your policies are up-to-date

If you have policies for sickness, long-term conditions or health and wellbeing, you may want to check they are up-to-date.

You may also want to introduce a cancer-specific policy. Or your organisation may have broader polices that can be applied to people with cancer and their carers. We have a cancer policy template which you might like to use.

Provide training for managers

You may want to think about using some of this information when training managers. This could be helpful for managing people with other long-term conditions, as well as cancer.

Macmillan offers training for managers, through our Macmillan at Work programme. We also provide online learning.

Educate employees

We produce The essential work and cancer toolkit to help employers support people affected by cancer. It’s designed to be shared with employees at your organisation who are affected by cancer, but other employees could also use it to learn more about cancer. If you do not already have the toolkit, you can order one by signing up at

Raise awareness of cancer

Whether you have an employee with cancer or not, you may want to raise awareness of the condition in your organisation. You could highlight the support you can offer if an employee is affected by cancer in the future. This could mean encouraging staff to take part in fundraising. Or you could put up a poster promoting cancer awareness months.

The importance of line managers

You may be managing a person with cancer, or someone caring for someone with cancer. Line managers are an important source of support for people affected by cancer for lots of reasons:

  • They are often the first person the employee contacts when they are unwell and can’t go to work.
  • They are responsible for the day-to-day management of the employee on their return.
  • They play a key role in any necessary work adjustments.
  • They may be the first person the employee contacts when they need to meet human resources (HR) or occupational health.
  • They manage the employee’s workload and so can change the level of pressure or demand. This will be important if the employee is returning to work after some time away.
  • By being supportive, especially after a period of sickness absence, they can prevent additional stress for the employee which could otherwise lead to more time off.

Line managers should be able to contact colleagues in HR and occupational health – who should be ready to give the information and support that managers need. This could be guidance about the employee’s health condition, advice on the reasonable adjustments needed or information about the return-to-work plan. Managers often value being able to discuss their worries with occupational health or HR.

You might find our top tips for line managers helpful. Download the PDF on the right-hand side of this page.

Back to If you are an employer

How cancer affects people

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

Talking about cancer at work

It may be difficult for your employee to talk about their diagnosis, but open communication may make it easier for you to support them.

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.