Being diagnosed with cancer is a traumatic and emotional event in a person’s life. It can cause fear and worry and can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including their working life. Cancer and its treatment will be a challenge, and each person will have a different experience.

While more than 63,000 people of working age are living with cancer in Northern Ireland the positive developments are that survival rates are improving and many people will continue to work after – or even during – their treatment of cancer. According to international research 6 in 10 people with cancer now return to work.

NIPSA believes that getting back to work at the right time and with the right support can provide psychological and financial benefits to members with cancer.

The Law

Under the Disability Discrimination Act an employee with cancer is protected from the point of diagnosis and as such employers are required to make reasonable adjustments.

Workplace Support and Reasonable Adjustments

While NIPSA has been working tirelessly over many years to ensure employers accept they not only have a legal duty but a corporate social responsibility to support their staff, this has not always been easy and some employers struggle to know what to do and the right support to provide. Getting the right support can make the difference between a member continuing on to work and earning a living or giving up work and possibly facing a future living in poverty.

Everyone’s cancer journey is different and that must be recognised by employers – no one approach will fit all situations.

Support from employers must therefore be flexible in order to meet the needs of the individual through the different stages of their cancer journey.

Examples of reasonable adjustments:

1. Time off Work Plan: The Plan sets out the potential ways for the employee to combine work with treatment and recovery. However it is important no pressure is put on the employee to come into work if they are unwell. A Time off Work Plan can include:

  • Information on the organisation’s sick leave policy;

  • Employee’s entitlement to payment during their period of absence;

  • Information on relevant in-house benefits negotiated by the union;

  • Information on eligibility for state benefits and who to contact e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau;

  • Reasonable accommodations to support the employee working during treatment, recovery and return to work;

  • Arrangements to take absences (including paid time off) for medical appointments;

  • Expected time off – for receiving treatment and recovery (this should also include counselling and complementary therapies).

Flexible Working Arrangements:

Flexible working arrangements will be a key support for members living with cancer - allowing the member to have greater choice about when they will take their leave. Knowing that flexible arrangements are available can give the member confidence and facilitate an early return to work. These arrangements might include:

a. Flexible working hours: this allows the employee to work when they feel strongest and have the most energy, while avoiding work when treatments are causing fatigue, illness or discomfort. Flexible hours can also help employees to avoid the strains of peak travelling times.

b. Lighter work: this allows the employee to transfer to less physically demanding or less stressful work.

c. Homeworking/teleworking has many of the same benefits as flexible hours. It allows the employee to conserve their energy and as some phases of treatment can affect the person’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to infection; working from home could be a reasonable option. This comes with the usual caveats in terms of home working:

  • ensuring the employee is provided with the required facilities and equipment to do the job;

  • everyone is clear about the monitoring of work;

  • performance targets are removed; and

  • the employee is provided with opportunities to stay in touch with colleagues and does not become isolated.

3. Changing where the employee works (with their agreement), for example, moving them to a ground floor office if breathlessness makes it difficult to climb stairs or moving them nearer to toilet facilities.

4. Providing equipment that might help, such as specialised chairs or computer equipment.

5. Allowing a ‘phased return’. For people with cancer work provides a sense of self-worth and allows an individual to focus on their abilities, not just their illness. A job can restore normality, routine, stability and social contact. Of course, for many people it is also crucial to have an income. This is where it is important for employers to examine their sick pay provisions and decide to pay over and above the statutory or contractual obligations to at least take away one worry from the person who has so many other worries to cope with during this difficult time.

What About Carers?

It is also important to recognise that cancer affects not only the person with the diagnosis, but also their family and close friends. When they are in work, carers have to balance the demands of the job with the needs of a loved one who is going through, or recovering from treatment. So employers must also support the carer as well as the employee who has cancer.

Branch reps should therefore ensure employers not only have an effective and supportive workplace policy for people with cancer but also a policy for carers which will allow employees with cancer and carers to see the support they can access and give them the confidence to come forward.

What we have found with some employers is that while there is provision within more general HR policies for example Flexible Working Policy, special leave, etc employees with cancer and carers are unaware of these provisions and even if they are aware are not sure if they apply to them. That is why we believe employers should have a specific policy or statement that clearly shows the employer’s commitment to supporting employees affected by cancer and what support is available.

Occupational Cancer Risks

Not only is there a need for employers to support employees affected by cancer but there is also a need to promote a culture of prevention and ensure effective surveillance for occupational cancer risks.

There are many factors which studies have shown can lead to an increase risk of developing cancer such as stress, poor diet, lack of exercise and poor sleeping habits. How then are employees exposed to these risks in the workplace?

Stress has increasingly become a workplace issue especially since the recession and ongoing cuts in public services and job losses.

Poor diet and lack of exercise can easily slip in as staff are working through breaks to keep up with workloads and find themselves skipping meals and exercise as they are exhausted at the end of a working day.

Poor sleeping habits can be brought on by stress. If employees work shifts this may change their sleeping pattern.

There is increasing studies showing a strong link between breast cancer and exposure to prolonged periods of night work.

Cancer risks have been associated with exposure to asbestos which is very prevalent in our schools. Teachers contracting mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos in schools are dying.

What the Law Says

The Health and Safety at Work Order makes it clear there is a legal responsibility on every employer to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health of their employees.

It also states that employers must provide information, instruction, training and supervision to ensure their safety. This requirement covers not just an employee’s safety from immediate injury but also any danger to their long-term health.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations also require the employer to conduct a suitable risk assessment of risks to the health of the workforce. This includes stress risk assessments, lone working, night working – any risk from any hazard that may cause cancer.

The regulations also state that the employer must identify and then introduce preventative and protective measures needed to improve workplace health and safety. The regulations are clear: that the first aim should always be to remove the hazard. Unfortunately employers often forget this and see their role as controlling hazards. The Management Regulations and COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) lay down clear principles for prevention that must be followed when deciding what to do about a potential hazard. This means the first step must always be, where possible, to get rid of the hazard altogether.

NIPSA’s position is that there should be no workplace exposure to anything that causes cancer. Where possible cancer causing hazards must be removed from the workplace.

NIPSA is committed to promoting a culture of prevention in respect of all forms of occupational cancer. Union led workplace safety committees play an essential role in identifying risks and in promoting changes to remove risks and prevent occupational cancer.

Our Health and Safety Reps also play a key role in making ensure initiatives are introduced in the workplace aimed at promoting employee health.

NIPSA will continue to ensure the interests of members affected by cancer are fully protected and receive the support they need to continue on to fulfil a happy and healthy life whether that be in work or outside of work.