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    Working with and after breast cancer

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    Tips for those diagnosed with breast cancer – and for employers with colleagues being treated or returning to work.

    Tips for those diagnosed with breast cancer

    Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, affecting around 55,000 women – and a small number of men – each year1.

    Breast cancer is most common in women over 502, but it can affect women of all ages. For example, Kristin Hallenga, founder of the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! was diagnosed at 23.

    For women in work, it’s important that they’re made aware of the processes that they can go through with their employer or HR department. Likewise, an employer should be mindful of how to discuss an employee’s options with them.

    Returning to work after a cancer diagnosis, or after treatment, can be daunting. Some find it hard to focus on work when feeling fatigued, others find that the emotional toll of the diagnosis and treatment makes keeping up in the office a difficult task.

    It may well be that the pace and focus of working life takes a person’s mind off their treatment, and/or they need to work for purely financial motives. Whatever the reason, we have some tips on how cancer can be talked about and managed at work.

    For employees

    If you decide to go back to work during your treatment, or after it finishes, it can be very helpful to talk to your employer or HR department about your current health. This might be a worrying prospect – but employees are protected from any possible discriminatory action based on health status under the Equality Act 2010. Find out more about what the Act involves here.

    Support from work can come in several ways following the conversation. Sick pay entitlements - ie. Statutory Sick Pay, Occupational/company sick pay or employee benefits such as Unum’s Critical Illness insurance – are likely to provide the principle support, but your employer may also make reasonable adjustments to your work. For instance, arranging designated time off, reducing or staggering hours, or allowing you to work from home.

    Cancer charities such as Maggie’s, provide practical, emotional and social support, while Macmillan’s Support Line, on 0808 808 0000, also offers financial advice on benefits and grants – which may be particularly useful to contractors or the self-employed.

    For employers

    Regardless of the size of your business, it’s vital to have open and honest conversations with an employee who has cancer. You can discuss return-to-work plans in tandem, focusing on the person’s particular needs. Remember, everyone is different, and they may need a more flexible work pattern or to be allocated regular time off.

    When they return to work, consider how the handover will be carried out, and try to let the transition take some time so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by coming back to the office.

    There are some key elements of communication to keep in mind. First and foremost, reassure the employee of your support. However obvious it might seem, it’s a good thing to emphasise.

    An early conversation isn’t the best time to bombard an employee with absence policy information. At this stage, focus on letting them talk in a comfortable, informal setting when they want to, but do highlight the options they have available. Do they want their team to know, or would they prefer to liaise with just HR or their manager? Do they need to take time off now, or just for appointments?

    Make sure that there is a communication plan in place, going forward. Agree in advance to phone, email, or text and agree on a time that suits you both. Keeping in touch is vital for both employer and employee, as the condition and its side effects may develop and alter plans along with it.

    After treatment: graded return-to-work plans

    A return-to-work plan can be developed in graded steps. It can help ease the employee back into a routine, in phases that take their recovery into consideration. A plan should factor in how much the employee needs to travel, and hours that accommodate fatigue, loss of memory or concentration.

    It’s also useful to build in time to review progress and workload, allowing the employee to adapt their work to their health. Ongoing appointments and check ups will be a part of post-treatment, and should be factored in. Flexibility is key in a graded return-to-work plan, and even when there is an end date in mind, employees may well need support and flexibility for a long time after they are treated for cancer.

    Support systems in place

    Whether it’s Statutory Sick Pay or a cover scheme such as those offered by Unum, how your company offers financial support should be made clear to all employees, regardless of their illness.

    Unum offers a vital support system, if you have - or are thinking of providing - extra cover on top of the statutory requirements.

    Breast cancer is included in the conditions covered by Unum’s Group Critical Illness policy. It can provide support either in a fixed amount (up to £500,000) or by a multiple of each member’s salary (of between 1-5 x the original salary). Our Critical Illness policy user guide, accessible here, tells you more.

    Moreover, Critical Illness cover also gives access to Harley Street Concierge, who provide specialised cancer care. The service they offer is highly personalised, which is hugely reassuring to those with an illness that can manifest itself differently in each individual. You can read more about their work here.

    As well as Maggie’s and Macmillan, Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Care offer breast cancer support. And for more information about the early stages of breast cancer, CoppaFeel! offers useful infographics on what to look out for.

    Incidences of breast cancer are not going away. In fact, over the last decade in the UK, the number of people with breast cancer has increased by 4%3. For employers and employees alike, it’s vital that all the facts and support options are properly understood.


    1 Cancer Research UK. (2018). Cancer incidence for common cancers

    2 Breast Cancer Care. (2018). Facts and statistics 2018 

    3 Cancer Research UK. (2018). Breast cancer incidence (invasive) statistics