New research reveals almost one in five people with cancer who were employed full-time at the time of diagnosis (19%) felt their employer could do more to understand their needs and circumstances. The key is better communication with almost one in five again saying they were dissatisfied with the frequency of communication from their employer following treatment.

The poll by YouGov, commissioned by Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and insurer Unum, found that many employers aren’t providing the right support for staff with cancer – during or after treatment. Often this is because employers are worried they may do or say the wrong thing and, as a result, don’t communicate effectively with employees about their needs and circumstances. 

For many people with cancer, work can play an important role in recovery – by recreating a sense of normality and purpose, and providing a focus beyond cancer. Research found that over 1 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer whilst in full-time employment say work is important to their sense of identity (28%) and a quarter said it provides them with structure and routine. Over a quarter of respondents who currently have cancer and were employed at the diagnosis stage (26%) said they think less about their medical treatment when they are working.

Andy Evans, Compensation & Benefits Manager for Xerox UK, has been supporting an employee with breast cancer since her diagnosis last November. He said: “Work was really important to this employee as she felt it was therapeutic and gave her a structure and routine. As her line manager, my role was to make sure she felt supported and connected day-to-day and to give her the opportunity to work flexibly or remotely whenever she felt able to.”

Currently over half a million people in the workplace have cancer and a further 63,000 would like to return to work, but are being held back by a lack of support.

Joy Reymond, Head of Rehabilitation Services at Unum, said: “Every person deals with cancer in a different way and employers often worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. Effective communication can help them to understand the needs of staff with cancer and put in place a tailored and flexible return to work plan to provide the right support and retain talented employees. That’s why Maggie’s and Unum are working together to raise the level of conversation around cancer in the workplace and encourage better communication between people with cancer and their employers.”

Lesley Howells, Research Lead and Centre Head at Maggie’s, said: “Many people living with cancer aren’t able or don’t want to work after treatment, but for those who can and choose to, it can be vital to their psychological wellbeing. Crucially, it can have a hugely positive effect on their self esteem, empowering them to live well with cancer. That’s why we’re working with Unum to combine our experience of providing emotional and practical support with their expertise in workplace rehabilitation. Together, we want to ensure people with cancer and their employers have the support they need to have an open and honest dialogue.”

To get the conversation started, we’re inviting people with cancer, their colleagues, employers, friends and family and to share experiences and inspirations. Just tag tweets, YouTube videos and Instagram photos with the hashtag #workingbeyondcancer to share them on our campaign content wall. For more information, or to see what other people have shared, visit

Maggie’s and Unum have the following tips for employers handling cancer in the workplace:

Recognise that every case will be different. What works for one person with cancer may not be helpful to another, so it’s important to maintain clear and meaningful communication to best understand your employee’s needs.

Keep the lines of communication open. Many people with cancer feel isolated from the workplace while they’re off for treatment, so it’s important to keep in touch – whether that’s over the phone, by email or in person. Even when someone has returned to work they can find it difficult to talk about their illness and its impact in the workplace, so make sure this communication doesn’t wane once they’re back.

Implement a staged return to work programme. A phased and individual return to work plan can help people with cancer to return to work when they are ready and at their own pace.

Be flexible. Even once treatment is over, the physical and psychological impacts of cancer mean many won’t be able to go straight back to their former role. Your employee may still be able to make a valuable contribution to your business by working reduced hours or taking on a different role.

Understand the impacts of cancer. Many managers won’t know what someone with cancer is going through, either mentally or physically. Providing education and training at all levels about what to expect from someone returning to work after cancer can help a business to respond appropriately and work more effectively with employees who have cancer.

Support line managers. The role of the line manager is especially important. They often have the biggest impact on someone’s experience of working with cancer and therefore need the right guidance and support to manage their return to work.

Appoint a coach, mentor or third party. Make good use of independent third parties who can facilitate communication and education between employer and employee, breaking down barriers and providing guidance for both parties.

Look out for Maggie’s and Unum resources. To help HR managers understand the needs of employees with cancer, Maggie’s and Unum will be launching an employer toolkit at the end of November