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Blood cancer and your employment rights

11th Oct 2021

Ben Goodall from Acas explains how employees with blood cancer are protected by law, and how to handle discussions with your employer about the impact blood cancer has on your working life, especially during the current pandemic.

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If you or those closest to you are living with cancer the last thing you need is unnecessary additional concerns. Unfortunately, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has presented many of these, with a wealth of research demonstrating it’s had a disproportionately adverse impact on those with chronic conditions.

Employment law

Forms of disability discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 sets out the following forms of discrimination relevant to any disabled person:

  • Direct discrimination (also including ‘by association’ and ‘by perception’)
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Discrimination arising from disability
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Harassment and victimisation

If your employer is aware of your diagnosis or might reasonably be expected to know you have a disability, (for example, if your health’s having a substantial detrimental impact on you but it’s proving difficult to secure an accurate diagnosis), you should suffer:

  1. no less favourable treatment because of your disability,
  2. nor any unfavourable treatment for anything arising out of it.

Examples of option 2 above might include being disciplined for needing time off work to attend specialist appointments or to undergo treatment. Good practice would be to record such time off separately from standard absences, and to adjust accordingly any ‘trigger points’ (set amounts of hours or days considered acceptable rates of absence) often found in absence management policies.

Why communication is key

People with the same type of blood cancer can be affected and respond to any treatment in very different ways. In addition, it’s impossible for anybody else to know how your condition affects you personally, and employers cannot be expected to factor in information they do not have, so it’s important to:

  • have open, honest and regular conversations with your employer – this helps them better understand your circumstances and work with you to find the right support as your needs change over time
  • agree with your manager what to share with colleagues, and how this might best be done, bearing in mind that it’s likely that HR will need to be aware of any cancer diagnosis – with your permission, they can then arrange occupational health assessments or communicate with your specialist to ensure reasonable adjustments are identified and introduced. You might not want anyone else to know about your cancer, or you may prefer to talk to colleagues about it yourself. People’s choice of words can make a big difference, so make sure colleagues know what terminology you’re comfortable with others using.
  • agree how a return to work might be managed – this might be a phased return, reasonable adjustments such as reducing hours or duties, or for some a career break might be more appropriate.

It can also be difficult for employers to appreciate the psychological impact of either being told you have blood cancer or that it has returned. The reasonable adjustments you need will be unique to you, but will be informed by medical evidence, your understanding of how best to manage your condition, and what would be reasonable given your employer’s staffing and financial resources.

A more flexible approach to work and the duty of care

During the pandemic you may have enjoyed the benefits of working from home some or all of the time, particularly given the heightened risks to anyone with a suppressed immune system. If working remotely has not affected your ability to perform in your role, an employer may struggle to justify insisting you return to your original place of work if you submit a flexible working request or propose a form of hybrid working as a reasonable adjustment.

Have constructive conversations and share information with your employer about the reduced vaccine efficacy for those living with blood cancer. This should help address any potential misconceptions and enable your employer to observe their duty of care to you by not putting you at unnecessary risk either through your work or your working environment. Anyone facing a return to work following the recent end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), sometimes referred to as temporary absence or furlough, may find this a particularly timely conversation.

Alternatively, you may be looking forward to seeing colleagues again, in which case contacting your employer to get reassurances that appropriate risk assessments have been conducted can help reduce anxiety. You are entitled to ask questions about existing ventilation and company policies about sanitising equipment and the wearing of face masks.

Explore alternatives and propose solutions

Where working remotely genuinely is not possible, or there’s a legitimate business reason for you to attend your usual place of work either some or all of the time, discuss what this means for you with your employer. Although everyone’s commute is their responsibility, if yours currently presents additional risks there may be alternatives like allocating you a specific parking space, arranging a lift share with someone you trust instead of having to use public transport, or start and finish times being amended to avoid travelling at peak times.

If your work itself brings you into contact with others, you might explore options like replacing face-to-face work with administrative tasks, training colleagues, or moving roles. The potential solutions will depend on your specific situation, but being open-minded helps employers and individuals establish common ground and agree outcomes which can work for everyone.

Those closest to you are also likely to benefit from appropriate support, so they might wish to submit a flexible working request to amend their usual place of work or working pattern. This is because there’s no requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments for anyone associated with a disabled person. It would, however, be good practice for employers to carefully consider how they can minimise unnecessary risks of employees or workers transmitting the virus to vulnerable people. The legislation detailing the right to apply for flexible working states it only applies to:

  • those legally classed as employees, with
  • at least 26 weeks' continuous service with their employer, and
  • who have not made such a formal request within the last 12 months.

Good practice would still be to give consideration to requests from anyone legally classed as a worker too, but these would not be subject to the requirement for the employer to fully process the request within a 12-week period, inclusive of any appeal.

Time off for Dependants and options for parents

In sudden or unexpected circumstances, anyone legally classed as an employee is entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to care for someone who is dependent on them.

This extends to making funeral arrangements, and the right of employees to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off if a dependant dies has recently been introduced in employment legislation.

Additional rights to unpaid time off exist for parents generally, with support also available to parents following the death of a child under 18. Check company policy or speak with your employer or a trade union if you are a member to find out if company policy allows for special leave or paid time off in any of these circumstances.

Overcoming difficulties

Some of these conversations can prove difficult and might come when the relevant manager or employer has health problems, either themselves or within their family. Although you’re likely to be highly-skilled at overcoming difficulties, if you and your employer cannot find a way for you to continue working together safely, Acas has further information about:

  • raising your concerns informally
  • submitting a formal grievance
  • submitting a flexible working request, or appealing the outcome if it was not originally considered in a reasonable manner
  • responding to a flexible working request in a reasonable manner
  • contacting the Acas helpline, where our advisers can discuss your circumstances and explain the relevant law, talk through your options and help you make more informed decisions about how best to proceed
  • contacting the Equality Advisory and Support Services (EASS) to discuss any concerns about discrimination
  • submitting an early conciliation request, although this would best be explored by contacting the Acas helpline first as it represents the start of a legal process.

You can contact Acas to discuss a workplace problem on 0300 123 1100, Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm. Interpreters are available for anyone who needs one.

You can also contact Acas through Relay UK (this used to be called the 'text relay' service): 18001 0300 123 1100. If you cannot use the relay service, email [email protected]

To talk about the emotional effects of anything to do with blood cancer, your working life, the pandemic or bereavement, call the Blood Cancer UK Support Service free on 0808 2080 888 or email [email protected]

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