Working with Cancer

Peter’s manager had been trying to get hold of me urgently. I left a routine meeting I had been chairing to call him back. One of the longer term members of his team had recently become a dad (for the third time) but just a few weeks later (yesterday) he and his wife had learned that a routine blood test had revealed that his wife had acute myeloid leukaemia. The manager asked if it would be ok to give him a period of compassionate leave. Of course it would – and we’ll pay him. Not an issue. But then what?

Supporting carers – a carers’ policy and a buddying scheme are worth considering

So began a long journey of supportive phone calls, meetings, and various other forms of assistance that we provided to help Peter and his family cope with what was happening. A lot of what we did was done out of basic compassion for a colleague. But what should employers do in these circumstances – what is essential and what is good practice?

Let’s start with the essential: there are various pieces of legislation that employers should be aware of:

  • The Work and Families Act 2006 and the Employment Rights Act 1996 which give employed carers the right to request flexible working, such as changing hours or working from home.
  • The Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended by the Employment Relations Act 1999. (In Northern Ireland these laws are called the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Employment Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1999) which give carers the right to take unpaid time off to look after dependants in an emergency.

Good practice is to have a Carers Policy. Too often, when there is no policy in place, employees wrongly believe their caring role isn’t a legitimate reason to request leave, or they may not feel comfortable disclosing their caring role because they believe it might impact their career or their perceived commitment. But being a carer is increasingly a part of life – whether it’s caring for someone with cancer or another form of illness or disability – and should not affect longer-term job prospects.

At a time when an individual might be dealing with unforeseen crises, short notice medical appointments, conflicting priorities and exhausting emotions, a clear policy will provide reassurance as well as guidance for everyone to follow.

Other examples of good practice are to signpost carers to sources of financial advice, for example, about benefits and pensions, and allowing carers some ad hoc unpaid time off when the person they are caring for is unwell. Macmillan’s benefits advisers provide advice to carers and can be contacted on their support line (0808 808 00 00).

Finally, why not introduce a buddying scheme to provide support to carers? Some organisations already provide these for employees who have a cancer, but a network of buddies could prove just as effective for carers.


Barbara Wilson

BARBARA WILSON, founder of Working with Cancer, is a senior HR professional with almost 40 years’ experience. Her previous roles were Group Head of Strategic HR at Catlin Group Ltd, Deputy Head of HR at Schroders Investment Management, and prior to that Chief of Staff to the Group HR Director at Barclays. Before joining Barclays she was a senior management consultant at Price Waterhouse. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Barbara set up a group called ‘Working with Cancer’. The group was the first to develop guidelines on work and cancer for HR professionals, line managers, employees and carers. From 2008 to 2010 she chaired a major part of the NHS/Macmillan 5-year Cancer Survivorship strategy, developing ‘work and cancer’ support tools for employees, employers and clinicians. She continues to work as a volunteer with Macmillan Cancer Support and speaks about ‘work and cancer’ at various conferences and events. Barbara trained as a coach at Ashridge Management College and has a history degree from Cambridge University. She is married with two sons and lives in Surrey.

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