There are over 700,000 people of working age living with cancer and over 350,000 new cases of cancer in the UK in 2013. For many people continuing work when they have cancer – even in some capacity – may help them to feel a sense of empowerment at a time when they feel that they have less control over other parts of their lives. However there will undoubtedly be disruptions to their working lives when, for example, their treatment means they have to spend periods away from work.

Whilst larger companies benefit from their scale (people and budget resource) when it comes to managing the impact of employee absence, small businesses, with often tighter budgets and, arguably, a greater reliance on each and every employee being present and able to work, may face a tougher challenge. So how do smaller businesses cope if an employee is diagnosed with cancer?

Long absences

Our own research has shown that more than two-thirds (67%) of small business owners worry business productivity and revenue would be negatively affected if a member of staff was unable to come to work for more than four weeks.3 With this in mind, small businesses should think carefully about how they could best support an employee with cancer.

Having a clear policy in place to inform your approach could be the place to start. And don’t keep it to yourself – make sure that employees are aware of this approach as it will help reassure them (should they become affected by a potentially life changing condition) of what support they can expect.

In practical terms there are steps business owners can take to manage the inevitable change that having an employee with cancer brings. Having an open and honest conversation with them and working out a plan that will work for both parties is crucial. This will not only help put the employee’s mind at ease, but also will help to ensure that you maintain positive and supportive engagement with them from the outset.

If appropriate confirm to other members of the team that their colleague may be absent for some periods of time and it may mean that there’ll be additional work to spread among them – you may be heartened to find that people are willing to pull together and put in a few extra hours’ work if needs be.

A clear plan of action

A cancer diagnosis does not necessarily mean that an employee will have to stop working altogether – but it will most certainly change the way in which they work. Many people affected by cancer might feel uncertain about how they should proceed in the workplace. This will vary from person to person; some will want to keep things under wraps, whilst others may want to talk about it openly. As an employer, you have an important role to play to ensure that, whatever their preference, they will be supported by you and be confident that their line manager (if they have one) will be sensitive.

Bear in mind also the implications of an employee’s family member being diagnosed with cancer. Having the support of their employer can help them get through the emotional and practical challenges they face and, again, having the right policies and practices in place will be beneficial for employee and employer alike.

Returning to normal

If your employee is ready to come back to work after cancer treatment, be sure to discuss their requirements with them and make the necessary adjustments needed. Consider carefully the kind of tasks they’ll be able to undertake and make sure that their workload is appropriate for them. In addition ensure that other staff members (who may – or may not – be aware of the exact reason for their colleague’s absences) are adequately prepared and appropriately supported for the return of their colleague.

Having an employee diagnosed with cancer is difficult. However, with an appropriate policy in place, preparation and adequate support, you can ensure that work is the one thing your employee doesn’t have to worry about. And, demonstrating that you are an employer who cares will also help to foster wider trust and loyalty among your employees as a result.

By Sharon Lidstone, Head of Clinical Services for AXA PPP healthcare