Employees with cancer: how bespoke vocational rehabilitation can help

For employers, an employee’s return to work following cancer can be fraught with emotional and practical challenges. The route to a successful outcome can be difficult, so workplace support policies and external professional healthcare support can be essential. 


Helping hand woman

Facts about workplace cancer

For many of the UK’s 27.5 million employees (1), the workplace is at the centre of their lives. It’s where important relationships are forged and where a sense of meaningful personal identity is established. An employee’s cancer diagnosis is terrible news, with implications for the employee’s immediate family, friends, work colleagues and the employer. 

The total number of people in the UK diagnosed with cancer each year is approximately 363,000 (2).  However, cancers are predominantly diagnosed in older age groups, so for employees of working age (16-64 years) the figure accounts for approximately one third of the total (3).   

Working age people are more likely to survive cancer

Cancer survival rates are higher in younger age groups, so the working age population is at a statistical advantage when it comes to successful rehabilitation. It is estimated that there are around 890,000 working age people living with cancer right now (4). The good news is that following treatment, many return to work. However, as the number of older people in the workforce increases due to higher life expectancy and changes to the State Pension age, it makes it more likely that workplaces will need to carefully and sympathetically manage greater numbers of employees with cancer. 

For employers, it’s essential to carefully consider all aspects of an employee’s return to work following cancer treatment. UK employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments which support the employee’s return to work after cancer (Equality Act 2010 (England, Scotland and Wales) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Northern Ireland).

Why employers need a tailored, bespoke approach to cancer

All employees should ideally receive tailored support to help them back to work, but too often employers – particularly in the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprises –  lack guidance about how to proceed during what can be the biggest crisis of an employee’s life. There are several reasons for this, but primarily they come down to the fact that there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ cancer patient. For example, cancer can appear in more than 100 distinct forms and can vary in its rate of progress and severity. Clinical treatment varies enormously from person to person, supported by new drugs which can produce multiple outcomes.

There may also be a divergence between patients’ social backgrounds or their home support networks, which could all influence their recovery rates.  On top of this, every workplace and role within it can vary in terms of the necessary physical and cognitive demands, adding further difficulties for employers aiming to support an employee’s return to work. Each individual case is different, the variables are complex and so it is essential for employers to address the singular nature of each employee’s cancer journey, from diagnosis to recovery. It’s here that bespoke vocational rehabilitation can help provide solutions when an employee contemplates the daunting task of returning to work. 

For employers, a combination of good quality information about cancer, workplace support policies and professional healthcare support is essential. Here is a guide to how these three important elements can work together. 

1. Information access

It’s vital that employees have access to information to help self-manage their condition when they return to work, and it’s helpful if employers have access to the same information, too, so that they can help ensure that the employee does not overdo it. There can be post-cancer side effects such as pain and fatigue as well as mental health issues which must be considered and managed. The second aspect is information about the employee’s legal rights under the legislation, mentioned earlier. Ideally, an employer should be fully versed in what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the working environment on the employee’s return.

2. Workplace support policies 

Research by the cancer charity Macmillan revealed that 87per cent of line managers had not been given any training on how to support people with long term conditions, including cancer (5). It’s therefore essential that employers have cancer support policies in place. In short, line managers must know what to do and how to go about this with sensitivity. 

3. Professional healthcare support

It’s important that employers include access to appropriately experienced healthcare professionals within their cancer rehabilitation policies. Ideally the employee should be referred to a specialist vocational rehabilitation consultant or occupational therapist before returning to work to formulate a tailored return-to-work plan. This should include scheduled regular reviews to monitor an employee’s progress and the flexibility to make any necessary adjustments as required. These assessments should ideally put employees at the centre of the process, listening to their concerns and supporting their next steps to recovery.   

Bespoke cancer rehabilitation solutions for employers

By applying these three approaches, the employer can help ensure that an employee can continue to safely play a productive role in the business. However, all of this takes time and resources. That’s why many choose to outsource the necessary support to well-resourced insurance companies with proven expertise in cancer rehabilitation services. 

These services often come as part of a package with workplace group protection policies, such as income protection and critical illness cover. For example, some providers can offer access to bespoke cancer work support services, which include appropriate post cancer rehabilitation support, as well as providing clear communication links between the employer and employee. In addition, they can help line managers to oversee a safe, timely and durable return-to-work plan for their staff. 

To sum up, although none of these services can turn the clock back on cancer, they provide an essential lifeline back to normality for employees, while ensuring that employers offer the best possible support for their staff when they need it most. 

This article was provided by Aviva. 


  1. Number of UK employees: ONS UK labour market: November 2018 https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/november2018#employment
  2. Most recent approximate UK cancer diagnoses (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) 363,000 (England: 303,135) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/cancerregistrationstatisticsengland/final2016  (Scotland: 31,331) http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Cancer/Publications/2018-10-30/Cancer_in_Scotland_summary_m.pdf (Wales: 19,088) http://www.wcisu.wales.nhs.uk/infographic (Northern Ireland: 9,446) http://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/nicr/FileStore/OfficialStats2016/Filetoupload,810457,en.pdf
  3. Macmillan Cancer Support ‘In the UK, more than 120,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year. ‘Working age’ is people aged from 16 to 64. https://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/organising/work-and-cancer/if-youre-an-employer/managing-cancer-in-the-workplace.html
  4. Macmillan Cancer Support ‘The rich picture on people living with cancer’ 2017 update report p7, Estimated total prevalence of people in the UK aged 16 to 65
  5. Macmillan Cancer Support ‘The rich picture on people living with cancer’ 2017 update report p57, Line managers’ experience of work and cancer

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