How do I tell my employer?

You do not have to tell your employer about your cancer but there can be big advantages to being open with them – like getting the support you need. Once they know about your cancer they can make changes to help you keep working or offer you time off.

Do I have to tell my employer I have cancer?

You do not have to tell your employer about your cancer. You might decide you want to tell them straight away so you can start planning.

Or, you might only tell them if your symptoms or treatment has an impact on your work.

Decide what is best for you but once you tell your boss you might be able to get extra help and support.

Your employment rights

The Equality Act, and the Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland, protect disabled people from being treated unfairly. This includes anyone who has, or has had, cancer. You do not have to think of yourself as disabled but the Acts give you legal protection from discrimination and can help you get the support you need.

Employers have a legal duty to make changes or ‘reasonable adjustments’ so you are not disadvantaged.

Do I have to tell my colleagues?

You do not need to tell your colleagues about your cancer if you do not want to. If your employer tells people about your cancer without your consent, they may be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
You might decide you want to tell your co-workers about your cancer. Before doing this you might want to think about:

  • What kind of relationship you have with your colleagues
  • Who you want to tell
  • If your co-workers need to know what to do if you have an emergency at work
  • If you feel ready to discuss your cancer with people at work.

If you would like your boss to tell other members of staff anything about your cancer for you, you may need to sign a consent form. This will give them permission to tell one or more named people. Your co-workers will usually understand this is a stressful time and do their best to support you.

Should I tell my employer I have cancer?

If you decide to tell your employer about your cancer, it can help them to support you. Most employers will understand this is a stressful time and look at ways to help you. They might make changes to your workplace, offer flexible working or change certain parts of your job to make it easier for you.

Expected support from telling your employer

Employers have a legal duty to support you once you tell them you have cancer. Failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ which help you do your job is a form of discrimination. These might include:

  • Giving you time off for treatment and check-ups
  • Changing parts of your job so you spend less time on tasks that cause discomfort
  • Letting you work more flexible hours, including working from home
  • Giving you extra breaks
  • Making the workplace easier to access
  • A parking space
  • Improving ventilation in the workplace
  • A phased return to work after treatment.

You can find out more about reasonable adjustments. Large employers may also have an occupational health adviser who can review the specific demands of your job and help you get changes made.

If you’re a member of a trade union, you may be able to get advice and support with any issues from an equality rep in your workplace or local branch.

Some companies also run employee assistance programmes. These can help you with any personal problems which have an impact on your work. They might include sessions with a counsellor.

Benefits of telling your manager

Your manager might be the first person at work you decide to tell. Once they know about your cancer they might be able to help with practical changes like changing your hours or swapping your desk. They may also be able to support you if you decide you want to tell your co-workers.
You can ask for regular meetings with your manager to talk about any changes you need.

Benefits of telling your colleagues

If you decide you want to tell your colleagues about your cancer they might be able to offer you support. This could be helping you with tasks at work or just having a chat.
You might decide you only want to tell some of your co-workers. That is fine but make sure you are clear with them about who you want to tell.

How to tell your employer you have cancer

You might be worried about telling your employer you have cancer. You only need to share what you feel comfortable with. It can help to take someone with you to the meeting. They can take notes and remind you of what you want to talk about. You might want to rehearse what you are going to say with friends or family. It can also help to make a list of key questions you want to ask or topics you want to cover. These might include:

  • Who you want to tell in the company
  • Asking what support is on offer
  • If you want to make any changes
  • What information they need to help you

Understand your treatment

To help you prepare for talking to your boss you might want to talk to your care team. They can give you an idea of what to expect and how your treatment might affect your ability. There are lots of different treatments out there so it can be useful to get an idea of how long yours might last or what the side effects might be.
Remember things might change and you might not have all the answers at first.

Make a plan for your requirements

First, think about things you feel would help. You might want to continue working, drop your hours or take time off. You might want to change roles for a while or need practical support like moving your desk to the first floor. If you’re not sure how things are going to pan out, talk to your care team or Young Lives vs Cancer Social Worker.

Plan what you feel comfortable sharing

You can decide what you want to share with your employer. You might want to share lots of details so you can come up with a plan. Or, you might not feel ready to share all the details yet. Making a list of what you want to share can help you stay on track in the meeting.

Decide who to tell

If you decide to tell your employer, it’s best to talk with your line manager or human resources manager directly. Make use of your trade union if you belong to one. They can help guide you through any conversations.

Speaking to HR

Human resources can help you find out more information about what support your employer can offer. Any information you share with HR should be kept private. Records are confidential and your personal or medical data should be processed in line with the Data Protection Act and Access to Medical Records Act.

Accepting support

It can be hard to accept support. You might not want to talk about your diagnosis at work or feel like everything is changing. But the support should make your life easier. It might be changes to help you at work or time off. You should always be involved in decisions about any changes.

Keeping in touch if you’re off from work

It’s likely your cancer treatment will mean taking time off. Your employer should explore with you whether you’d prefer flexible working hours. You might ask them to keep your job open for when you return after sick leave.

Talk to your employer about how you want to be contacted while you are off. Not having any contact can make you feel left out. But you might not want the pressure of dealing with lots of calls or emails. You might set up a regular call with your manager to check in. Or, you might want to keep in touch with specific co-workers.

You should also think about how you are going to keep your employer up-to-date with your progress.

What to do if your employer isn’t supportive

Most employers will want to support you once they know about your cancer. But you might be worried about how your employer will react.

You should not be treated unfairly because of your cancer. There are laws to protect your rights.

If money is an issue for your employer, you can tell them about Access to Work. This is a government scheme that can pay for any costs involved in supporting you in the workplace. This includes things like specialist equipment, a support worker or taxi fares to work if you cannot use public transport.

Can my employer sack me if I have cancer?

There are laws that protect your rights at work when you have cancer. This means you should not be fired just because you have cancer. Your employer should also make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help you keep working. You can read more about reasonable adjustments here.

But employers vary in structure and size. What might be ‘reasonable’ for one may not be for another. If your employer cannot make the adjustments you need to return to your old job or find you a suitable alternative, they may be able to end your contract.

If you work for a small business, it may not be possible to move you into another role. You could be sacked if you cannot carry out the main parts of your job once all reasonable adjustments have been considered.

There may also be times when adjustments are not ‘reasonable’. This will depend on:

  • How practical it is
  • How much it will help you
  • The cost
  • How making the adjustment will affect your employer.

Discrimination at work

If your employer or co-workers treat you unfairly because of your cancer diagnosis, this is discrimination. Examples could include:

  • Making it difficult for you to get sick pay
  • Making you uncomfortable by talking about your treatment
  • Receiving a formal warning for having a lot of time off sick which does not take your cancer diagnosis into account
  • Suggesting it would be better if you stopped working because you have cancer
  • Being moved to a lower-paid or less demanding job without your agreement because you have cancer.

If you feel you’re being discriminated against at work, make sure you get advice and support. You could contact our Welfare Advice Service for help. You may also want to contact:

Information reviewed: May 2023

Next review in 2027

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