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Union advice can be crucial to support workers with cancer

Issue date

To coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which began last week and lasts throughout October, the TUC has issued guidance for union representatives, employees, line managers and employers for how best to support colleagues with cancer at work.

More than 700,000 people of working age are living with cancer across the UK. As survival rates improve and people retire later, many people will continue to work after – or even during – their treatment for cancer.

The TUC believes that getting back to work at the right time and with the right support can provide psychological and financial benefits to workers with cancer. However, some employers struggle to provide the right support for their staff and this is where guidance from unions can be crucial.

The TUC advice – put together by TUC Education and Macmillan Cancer Support – says:

  • 1. Confidentiality. Trust, honesty and confidentiality are vital in supporting staff with cancer. Employees who talk to their bosses about their illness and difficulties in coping with work must not be penalised, downgraded or even made redundant as a result.
  • 2. Flexibility. Everyone with cancer is classed as disabled under the Equality Act, so employers need to make reasonable adjustments to a member of staff’s working arrangements when they are diagnosed and treated for cancer. Union reps can help employers with changes that might include allowing an employee time off to attend doctors’ appointments, allowing more flexibility in working hours, allowing extra breaks to help cope with tiredness, allowing more working from home and allowing a phased return to work after extended sick leave.
  • 3. Keeping in touch. Union reps should keep in touch with sick employees while they are off as well as when they are in the workplace to help make sure they still feel involved, valued and part of the team, to ensure early referral for medical checks, to be alert to disability issues and to involve all levels of management in rehabilitation – including line managers and HR staff.
  • 4. Return to work. When it is time for a member of staff to return to work there should be a clear policy in place – that is not linked with any disciplinary procedure – and the advice of the employee’s GP or medical specialist should be followed. A range of options should be open to the returning staff member and where appropriate there should be alterations of work stations, retraining offered, changes to working times and patterns, and a review of transport arrangements to and from work.
  • 5. Wider support. Union reps can also work with staff who will have to become carers for partners, children or relatives who have been diagnosed with cancer, and help employees ensure they are getting all the financial support they are entitled to including statutory sick pay, carer’s allowance, housing benefit and tax credits. Unions can also help negotiate paid carers' leave.

People with cancer can experience considerable prejudice from both managers and colleagues and may hide aspects of their illness from bosses. There is enormous scope for union reps to ensure employers support their staff effectively and everyone should be in a trade union to get their voice heard and their interests represented at work.

Beth Farhat    

TUC Northern Regional Secretary

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