How business can support employees living with cancer

19 October 2020 - 1-2 minute read

Finding out one of your team has cancer can be a shocking experience, but it shouldn't be a surprising one. About 40% of people living with cancer in New Zealand are working age.1 That's why understanding now how to best support employees living with cancer is worth the effort - because good intentions are not the same as good preparation.

What does good support look like?

While some people may choose to stop working altogether, many will decide the opposite following a cancer diagnosis. According to Macmillian Cancer Support in the UK, 85% of people who were employed when diagnosed say it was important for them to continue work.2

For 60%, it was to maintain a sense of normality, while for 57%, continuing to work helped them stay positive and keep up morale.

That’s why the right support is so important; because work can have a real and positive impact on quality of life for a person living with cancer.

The Cancer Foundation of New Zealand provides excellent advice for managers and workmates, but here are some key ideas to start.

  1. Respect privacy

    Cancer is personal, so always ask permission before sharing any information, and accept the answer you are given.

  2. Be open and honest

    Allow people to talk, and listen to what they say. Let them tell you if they're coping, what work they can do, and what they might be struggling with. This will likely involve more than one conversation over time.

  3. Be practical

    Dealing with practical issues can give everyone a greater sense of control. Again, the Cancer Society provide a great resource on insurance, legal and employment issues. Prepare a clear policy to help managers and teams with the next steps. Consider things like:

    • Information about employee rights
    • Full details about available sick leave
    • Details about insurance
    • Any relevant employee benefits
    • Details about any Employment Assistance Programme and counselling services.

    You might also think about everyday details like:

    • Can we provide convenient car parking so people can get to treatments more easily?
    • Can we provide a sleeping room if people need to rest during the day?
  4. Stay informed

    Every cancer treatment will have its own challenges. Get to understand these together with your employee. In general, cancer-fatigue could mean people tire more easily, and different medications could affect a person's ability to concentrate for extended periods.

  5. Make a plan together

    Work together to decide next steps on the work front - do they want to continue to work while receiving treatment? Could they work from home, reduce their hours or job share?

  6. Talk to the wider team (with permission)

    Ask the employee if it's OK to do an education session for the wider team. Consider those who are directly or indirectly affected, and be prepared for their concerns too. For some, it may trigger tough emotions from their own experiences, or anxiety and stress about how any proposed changes might affect their job.

  7. Stay connected

    Make time to talk regularly. This catch up can be formal or informal, depending on what works for both of you. Use this time to find out how they're managing, and to make any adjustments to your work plan. At the same time, you don't need to dwell on cancer. For many people, work can be a welcome diversion.

Returning to work can take time

When people return to work after treatment, life doesn't always return to a pre-cancer normal.

About 20% of cancer survivors report limitations at work, caused by cancer-related problems, after 1-5 years of diagnosis.3

Work together to prepare a realistic return-to-work plan and be flexible with it. You might also look at workplace rehabilitation or retraining.

Everyone's needs will be different, so be careful about adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. Also, prepare a Plan B and even Plan C. Many people can return to work before they're ready, or not be able to perform at the same level. Honest communication and an open-minded approach is the key here.

Taking steps today for a healthier tomorrow

As important as it is to support an employee after a cancer diagnosis, it may be the actions you take before they ever go to the doctor that have the biggest impact.

Choosing today to be proactive about cancer education in the workplace and promoting and encouraging regular screening for employees can prove to be a life-and-death decision - literally.

Encouraging healthy lifestyle decisions around weight, smoking, alcohol and exercise can also contribute to better outcomes.

Employees wanting to learn more about additional cancer cover options that may be available through Southern Cross can view these here:


  1. (2017). New cancer registrations 2017 | Ministry of Health NZ. Retrieved from
  2. (2017). People of working age with cancer. Retrieved from
  3. (n.d.). Cancer and Careers | The Top Resource for Working People With Cancer. Retrieved from
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