Cancer isn't fair - but your boss has to be

12 November 2016

Four out of five managers get no training on how to support people with cancer. Jim Peters of the RMS reminds them of their responsibilities under the law

(As featured in the ASLEF Journal December 2016)

cancerHoward Kaye, Steve Jacob, Gordon Johnston, Mick Carroll, Chris Munro, Andy Hudd, Jim Peters, Mike Setchell, Ted Llewellyn and Colin Moon board the prostate cancer special out of Paddington in February

Half of us will get cancer at some point in our lives, according to the most recent data from Cancer Research UK. Considering how likely it is that we will get, or be affected by, the Big C the findings from a You Gov survey earlier this year become even more concerning. In that survey, of 1,010 line managers, commissioned by Macmillan Cancer Support, four out of five managers admitted that they are not given any training on how to support people with cancer or other long-term conditions.

The survey also revealed a misconception among line managers, with one in four thinking that making reasonable adjustments to allow someone with cancer to keep working would be difficult, even though more than two-thirds of those who have had to make reasonable adjustments said it was, in fact, easy to do.

There is no evidence to show that this skills gap among line managers is any different in the rail industry so, as things stand, you are unlikely to get much help if you are diagnosed with cancer although, as one in five managers said they did get some training,there will always be honourable exceptions.

Employers have a duty to ensure that every one of our members affected by cancer is properly supported to stay at work, so this gap in knowledge amongst line managers is unacceptable and needs to be challenged. With massive improvements in survival rates,managers must be trained to support and understand that someone with cancer can, in more and more cases, continue to work for many years – with a little bit of help.

As some reps might have discovered, there are managers who, possibly due to entrenched ideas, view employees with cancer as a drain on their budgets and can be inclined to neglect their legal responsibilities and ease drivers out of the door instead of supporting them to stay in work. Until employers plug the knowledge gap that permits this,it’s essential we all know what our rights are, if we get cancer, or if care for someone with cancer, because carers have similar rights to those with the disease.

The Equality Act automatically classifies cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis as disabilities from the moment of diagnosis and, in so doing, confers certain rights on both you and the person caring for you. As soon as you disclose your diagnosis to your employer they should support you but, before you say anything, you’d do well to ask one of your ASLEF reps for advice about what local agreements exist that could help you. You might find your local agreements don’t state anything but, if that is the case, you are still protected by the Equality Act and any other laws. Outdated agreements are overridden by legislation.

It can cost employers a lot more if they do not support staff to remain at work by making reasonable adjustments, as the law says they should. It’s not just legal costs that they might incur – retaining staff who have valuable knowledge and experience costs much less than recruiting and training new ones and,in any case, even new staff can get ill.

All managers need to feel comfortable talking about cancer with employees who are undergoing, or have been through, treatment. Even when treatment is finished people who have had cancer are still protected by the law, and with good reason, as the psychological effects can last much longer than the disease itself. Managers need to listen and understand what an employee’s needs are,including individual adjustments which could enable him or her to stay in, or return to, work.

As Macmillan Cancer Support says, ‘Cancer isn’t fair – but your boss has to be.’ You can find more information by visiting the Macmillan website at

What rights do carers have?

If you are looking after someone who is elderly or disabled, the law – the Equality Act of 2010 –protects you against direct discrimination or harassment because of your caring responsibilities. This is because you are counted as being ‘associated’ with someone who is protected by the law because age or disability. For more detailed information about your rights as a carer, go to

What are reasonable adjustments?

Both the Equality Act (and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland) require your employer to make reasonable adjustments to your workplace and their working practices.They are required to do this when the place or practice put you at a substantial disadvantage, because of your cancer, compared with those who don’t have the disease. For more information, go to

Cancer in the workplace

A workbook developed jointly by Macmillan Cancer Support and TUC Education called Cancer in the Workplace is aimed at union reps, union learning reps, project workers, union professionals, organisers and activists to help them deal with the increasingly common situation of employees diagnosed with cancer. The workbook can be downloaded from the Unionlearn site

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