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‘We can help them think of work in a different way’

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The work support service at Macmillan Cancer Support offers guidance on employment matters to people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Claire Read reports

macmillan work support

macmillan work support

Ghazala Anjam and her colleagues spend their days talking to people who have been affected by cancer. The work support service team at Macmillan Cancer Support is there for anyone seeking advice on how to approach employment while affected by the disease. The calls can cover all manner of areas, but when it comes to discussing her callers’ interactions with clinicians, there is an important issue that crops up.

“We sometimes hear from people who call the support line that healthcare professionals have told them not to worry about work and have just signed them off work completely,” reports Ms Anjam, who leads the team.

It is a natural urge, perhaps: to tell people they don’t have to think about going into work while they’re dealing with diagnosis and treatment. “But we know that 87% of people employed when diagnosed with cancer say that continuing to work is really important to them, and we know that work can have real benefits contributing to somebody’s overall health and wellbeing as well,” explains Ms Anjam.

It is why Ms Anjam and her colleagues are there to provide advice on employment matters to anyone who has been affected by cancer. Research suggests that it is needed – more than a quarter of cancer patients who are employed when diagnosed say they receive no help to return to work.

However, Ms Anjam explains that when someone is diagnosed with the condition they are classified as disabled, which is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. That means employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to help the individual continue working.

“That could be a phased return to work after a period of sick leave. It’s things like maybe looking at lighter duties, additional rest breaks, maybe working from home, maybe reducing their hours at work for a temporary period of time while they’re getting used to going back to work and having symptoms or long-term side effects from their cancer diagnosis.

“So it can be very simple reasonable adjustments but which can be life-changing for the person with cancer.”

She says such conversations can be beneficial to employee and employer alike. “It’s about making sure that people are supported to go back to work and that employers aren’t losing skilled employees from the workforce; people who have many years of experience and can contribute really actively to the workforce for years to come as long as they’re supported to do so.”

According to Ms Anjam, nurses and other health professionals are well-positioned to help all of this happen. “We know that healthcare professionals, and particularly nurses, play a really crucial role for our callers, because they have that ongoing contact with that person throughout their treatment. A nurse is often the first person that they see after a diagnosis as well, along with their consultant.

“They play a really important role in helping people with cancer to stay in or return to work – they can help their patients understand the impact that the cancer might have on their ability to work. That can, in turn empower their patients to have informed and early conversations with employers about their work support needs, which we feel is really crucial.

“We find that when somebody calls the Macmillan Support Line early on and has all the information and support and guidance from us, it can potentially help prevent issues developing down the line and can help make their return to work or their ability to remain in work a really positive one.”

After all, she says, employment can be about more than finances alone. “Personally, I love my job and I love coming into work and seeing my colleagues – they’re friends as well as colleagues. So it’s really important that when somebody’s off work they’re not isolated and don’t feel like they’ve just been signed off sick when actually they may want and be able to do something; they could work from home, they could maybe do an alternative job role if one was available.

“There’s a whole host of conversations that we could have with people that may help them think about work in a different way,” says Ms Anjam.

Your patients can reach the Macmillan work support service on 0808 808 0000. The team is available Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm. The charity also produces material to help healthcare professionals talk about work with patients and signpost to appropriate resources – visit to download or order these. 

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