Talking to your employer and colleagues

Talking about cancer may be difficult, especially at work. Some people may worry that their employer will make them redundant or discriminate against them. However, it is important to know that people affected by cancer are protected against discrimination by the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 protects people who live in Northern Ireland.

Talking to your employer can also help them to make changes that will support you during treatment. They can help and support you in a number of different ways. They may make work adjustments, give you time off and tell you about your sick pay entitlements.

You may want to talk to:

  • your line manager
  • your human resources (HR) manager
  • an occupational health adviser
  • your trade union representative.

If you feel nervous, you could take someone with you. You could also ask that the conversation takes place in a private place and that it is not rushed.

You may be wondering whether you want to tell colleagues, or what to say to them. You may worry about how they will react. But telling them can help them know what to expect and to support you.

Talking to your employer

Many people find that their employers are supportive. But some people worry about telling their employer they have cancer and need treatment. They may be concerned that their employer won’t support them, or will sack them or find an excuse to make them redundant. This should not happen. There are laws that protect your rights at work when you have been diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer and the law

If you have or have had cancer, the law considers you to be disabled. This means you can’t be treated less favourably than other people at work because of the cancer. If you are treated less favourably because of the cancer, it is called discrimination.

The following legislation protects you:

  • the Equality Act 2010, if you live in England, Scotland or Wales
  • the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), if you live in Northern Ireland.

This legislation also says your employer has to make reasonable adjustments (changes) to your workplace and their work practices. They are required to do this when the workplace or their working practices mean you are at ‘substantial disadvantage’ because you have cancer.

So if your employer knows about your illness you may be able to suggest reasonable adjustments to help you carry on working or return to work. This could mean, for example, time off for hospital appointments or flexible working arrangements.

You don’t have to tell your employer you have cancer. But unless they know (or should reasonably know) that you have cancer, they don’t have to make a reasonable adjustment.

Also, if you don’t tell your employer and your ability to do your job is affected, it could cause problems later. You might also be asked questions if you miss a lot of work or you’re less productive.

Who to talk to

We use the terms manager or employer here. There may be different people at your workplace who might be involved. You may want to talk to any or all of the following people:

  • your line manager – they are often the first person you talk to
  • your human resources (HR) manager
  • an occupational health adviser
  • your trade union representative.

Some people worry about confidentiality. Ask your employer to keep the information you give them confidential. Only the people you agree to have information should be told.

We have more information about confidentiality and laws that protect your rights.

What you can do

If you feel nervous about talking to your manager, you can take someone with you. This could be a friend, family member, work colleague or trade union representative. You can ask that the conversation takes place in a private place and that it’s not rushed.

Write a list of questions or things you’d like to talk about. This could include:

  • letting them know who at work you have decided to tell, what you want to tell them and who you’d like to do this
  • discussing work changes you and your employer feel might help you carry on working
  • asking for information about their policies on, for example, company/organisation sick pay (see below) absence from work, occupational health and pensions
  • finding out about any support schemes for people going through stressful situations, for example, an employee assistance programme (EAP) that offers counselling
  • asking if they would like information about your treatment to help them, or information for employers about supporting someone with cancer at work.

Keep a note of any discussions you have with your manager about work. This helps you to remember what has been said and can be helpful if anything unexpected comes up later.

If you want to carry on working as normally as possible, tell them so they can support you. If you can’t continue working as usual, they can look at making changes to help you or give you the time off you need.

If you don’t know what to expect until you start treatment, it can be hard to decide how much work to take on. Explain this to your employer now so that they understand you may need to change work plans at short notice. Let them know that things may change during the course of treatment.

Ask for regular meetings with your manager. You can keep them up to date and talk about any changes.

Our leaflet Questions to ask about work and cancer includes questions you can ask your GP, healthcare team, other advisory services and employer.

Keeping in touch

If you are going to be off sick for a while, you may want to talk about ways of keeping in touch with work. Not having contact may make some people feel out of touch. If contact is too regular it may make you feel under pressure.

You could agree on how often and when your manager can contact you. If your work has a regular update newsletter, you could ask them to email it to you. You may also decide if you want to keep in touch with certain colleagues by phone or email. You can always review this with your manager if your feelings about this change over time.

Asking for a fit note (Statement of Fitness for Work)

If you are off sick for more than a few days, ask your GP or hospital doctor for a fit note (a sick note) to cover your illness. You need a fit note to get sick pay and to claim benefits.

It also allows your doctor or other healthcare professional to give information on how your condition affects your ability to work. This helps your employer understand how they might help you to continue to work or return to work.

Sick pay

Check if your employer has rules or policies about when and how you tell your manager you are off sick. If there aren’t any, tell them within a week of the first day you are sick. Your employer doesn’t have to pay Statutory Sick Pay for any days before this.

Most people are entitled to sick pay. There are two types:

  • Company sick pay – this is your employer’s own sick pay scheme. Check your contract to find out what you are entitled to. It may be more generous than SSP or paid on top of it. Some employers pay in full up to a certain time.
  • Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – if you aren’t entitled to anything under a company scheme, your employer should still pay you SSP if you are eligible.

We have more information on sick pay. After a week, your employer can ask you to provide medical evidence (such as a fit note) to support payment of company sick pay or SSP.

Talking to other people at work

Talking to the people you work with about your diagnosis can be difficult. You may worry about their reactions or if it will be awkward. You may decide to tell people you feel closest to at first. They may be able to help you plan how to tell others.

Telling people can have benefits:

  • it gives them the chance to support you and know what to expect
  • you can let them know when you need help
  • they may suggest helpful ways for you to cope with your work
  • it may make you feel closer to the people you work with
  • there may be people who have experience of cancer who could support you.

You could give people a short explanation of your treatment and its side effects. Tell them if tiredness is a problem, if your concentration is affected or if you’re at risk of infection.

If some people avoid you, it is usually because they don’t know what to say or are worried about saying the wrong thing. Showing them that you’re willing to talk openly about your illness may help. We have information on talking to people 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 >

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 >

If you don’t want to tell colleagues

Some people prefer not to tell colleagues they have cancer. You may not want to tell them so that you can keep one area of your life as normal as possible. This is a good way of coping for some people.

However, sometimes the effects of the cancer or cancer treatment (for example, if your hair falls out), and the need to take time off, make it impossible not to tell your colleagues.

Your colleagues may also be aware from your behaviour that something’s wrong, and may feel uncomfortable if they don’t know what it is.

Risk to people you work with

There are many myths and misunderstandings about cancer. If you work with colleagues, they may worry that they could be harmed if you are having treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. However, there is no risk to your colleagues. Chemotherapy is broken down in the body and can’t harm anyone you come into contact with. Radiotherapy treatment from an external machine does not make you radioactive. Even if you have had internal radiotherapy, the radiation will only affect a small area of tissue in your body around the cancer. It will not affect anyone you come into contact with.

Sometimes, colleagues may worry that they can catch cancer. But cancer can’t be passed on like an infection, and the people you work with have no risk of catching cancer.

You may find it helpful to talk in confidence to our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Back to Information for employees

Policies and resources

People affected by cancer may face challenges related to work. Macmillan can offer information and support

Working during treatment

Deciding whether to work during cancer treatment can be very difficult. It depends very much on individual circumstances.

Coping with side effects

Cancer treatment can cause different side effects. They can have an impact on your capacity to work.

Making treatment decisions

When you’re self-employed, you may have particular questions about treatment decisions and how they could impact on your work.