Cancer in the Workplace: Your Role as an Employer

According to statistics Canada, about 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime.  In 2014 alone it was estimated that 191,300 Canadians developed cancer (Canadian Cancer Society, 2014). The effects of cancer can be vast and at times, devastating. However, with early detection and new treatments, the five-year relative survival ratio has been found to be up to 63% (Canadian Cancer Society, 2014). Considering that almost half of cancer survivors are diagnosed at working age, as an employer it is important to understand your role and responsibilities should an employee require your support to manage a cancer diagnosis or recovery (Mariotto, Yabroff, Shao et al, 2011).

There are a number of responsibilities employers have regarding employee illness. It is important that employers are familiar with both provincial and federal legislation, such as The Employment Standards Act, the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.   It is also key that employers and human resources professionals have clear policies and guidelines on insurance supports, along with any unique company operations related to health and illness. For example, if your company offers private health, dental or vision insurance, or short and long term disability insurance, can you assist an employee to access these?  Do you know your vacation and sick day policies? Are you familiar with your responsibilities to them regarding their medical leave and a reasonable accommodation process?

Related to this, is also being aware and mindful of where your employee is in their diagnosis or treatment stage. When an employee discloses their diagnosis to you, it is important that you are open, accepting and maintain non-judgemental. Is the diagnosis recent? Or are they in the rehabilitative stage, or are preparing to return to work? It is important to be aware of this so that you can ask the right questions, provide support, and work in collaboration with them to address any issues or needs they may have.

Depending on your employee and their unique situation, it can also be helpful to have a sense of how the type of cancer and the associated symptoms are impacting their ability to complete their job demands. Cancer can lead to physical changes, like changes to muscle strength, impaired mobility and fatigue, cognitive changes like reduced ability to concentrate or forgetfulness as well as emotional changes such as low mood and (understandably) increased levels of stress. However, with certain changes to the environment and/or job demands, your employee can still be a productive member of your team. Recruit the assistance of an Occupational Therapist to work with you, your human resources professionals and your employee to explore and implement ways for them to remain at work as long as their symptoms and course of treatment allows. An OT can help them to be comfortable at work while maximizing productivity and helping to foster a positive work environment.

References and Resources

Mariotto AB, Yabroff KR, Shao Y, Feuer EJ, Brown ML. Projections of the cost of cancer care in the United States: 2010-2020. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2011 Jan 19;103(2): 117-28. Epub 2011 Jan 12

Cancer + Careers

Canadian Cancer Society

University Health Network