Cancer, your work and you: should you tell your employer and colleagues about your diagnosis?
July 26, 2017
When you are first diagnosed with cancer there are usually a million things running through your mind. As well as trying to come to terms with the news, getting information about your diagnosis and treatment, and thinking about how to tell loved ones, the question often arises - what about work?
The simple fact is that the decision to tell your employer about your cancer straightaway is entirely personal. There is no right or wrong approach.
While some people prefer to only tell their employer if the cancer starts affecting their work, others decide to inform their manager right away, allowing them to come up with a plan to manage the impact on both them and their workplace.
A diagnosis can be difficult to discuss and it's understandable that you might not want to share details with your work, but you should also consider the stress you may experience if you try to keep your cancer a secret. On the other hand, being open with your employer may:
- enable you to discuss the support you need and any adjustments that could be made to your work
- help you find out about any benefits you can access, such as additional leave
- make it easier to organise flexible working arrangements
- reduce the risk that any impacts on your work will be seen as poor work performance.
Over the years I've had many people with cancer tell me they are worried they may lose their job if they tell their manager what's going on. It's important to remember that discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and treatment is unlawful. This means they can't sack you, stop you taking leave, or offer you a more junior role for a reason related to your cancer. Of course it's more complicated if you're in contract or casual employment, so you may want to see advice prior to talking with your employer.
If you are unsure of how your employer will react, it's good to know your rights and your employer's responsibilities. Our "Workplace Rights" section of our Cancer, Work & You publication has more information on this.
What should I tell my employer?
Again, what and how much you tell your employer will depend on a few factors, such as your workplace and the kind of relationship you have with your manager. Before your chat, have a think about whether you want to provide information on:
- if and how long you will be able to continue working
- whether you'll be able to perform all your duties
- if you want other people in your workplace to know
- if you need to take time off work for treatment and when you are likely to return to work
- any work adjustments you may need, such as reduced hours or a request to work from home on treatment days.
To help you prepare, have a chat to your medical team about what to expect and how your treatment might affect your ability. There are many different cancers and treatment regimens, so before discussing any altered working arrangements it can be a good idea to get some facts about your treatment in terms of duration and how unwell you may be. It's important to remember that things might change and you might not have all the answers until you've started treatment - and that's okay.
If you don't feel like you have all the information straightaway, don't worry. There's no need to share all the details of your diagnosis, treatment or prognosis with your employer: you only have to tell them about anything that may impact upon your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others (for instance if the side effects of medicines you are taking may affect your ability or safety at work).
Tips for talking to your employer
If you do decide to share the news, here are some tips from our "Cancer, Work & You" publication to guide you:
- rehearse the conversation with your family or a friend first, as this can boost your confidence
- consider taking a support person with you, who can take notes or remind you of things you want to discuss
- decide beforehand how much information you want to share. A simple list of topics can help ensure you don't miss anything important
- request a meeting in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted, and allow plenty of time
- come to the meeting with ideas about your needs and how any impact on the workplace can be dealt with
- be prepared for your employer to bring up your working arrangements, eg, they may ask if you want a modified schedule. If you don't know, say you need to consider your options
- write down any agreed changes to your working arrangements for you and your manager to sign
- you can talk to your employer about whether or not you plan to tell your colleagues, and when you're thinking about doing it. You can also discuss if you would like to share this information with them yourself, or if you'd like your employer to talk to them about it. If you choose the latter, work with your employer on what you'd like them to say.
What about my colleagues?
Again, whether you decide to tell your workmates and colleagues is a personal decision. Sharing details may make you uncomfortable, or you may not want to answer questions. On the other hand, you might appreciate the support that your work friends can offer.
In making your decision, some things to think about include:
- the types of relationships you have with other staff
- whether your workplace is collaborative, friendly and nurturing, or more negative
- who you feel you can trust with personal matters
- how any previous disclosure of cancer or other serious illness in the workplace was received
- whether your colleagues need to know what to do if you have an emergency at work.
What you tell your work about your cancer is a personal decision. If you tell someone but want them to keep this information confidential, be explicit that these are your wishes.
No matter what you decide, Cancer Council is here to provide you with the information and support you need.
Find more information, download the "Cancer, Work & You" publication as a PDF. You can also call 13 11 20 for information and support, or to order a hard copy of the booklet.