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Cancer work and you
Key questions about cancer and work
Key questions about work and cancer.
Do I have to tell my employer?
Telling an employer that you have cancer is a personal decision and legally you don’t usually have to let them know. You do need to tell an employer about anything that will affect your ability to do the essential parts of your job, or that could reasonably cause a health and safety risk for you or other people. You may need to think about what this means for you now and in the future. For example, will the medicines you need affect your ability to safely do your job?
You may want to wait and see how the cancer or treatment affects you first, and then decide whether you need to tell your employer. Or you may want to talk to them right away about the impacts on you and your workplace. It’s your choice.
If you decide to tell your employer, it may help to talk to your doctor first. Your doctor can explain what to expect during cancer and treatment, and how it may affect your work.
If you decide to tell your employer, it may help you:
- discuss the support you need and any changes that could be made to your work
- find out about any benefits available, such as additional leave
- organise flexible working arrangements
- take time off work for appointments or treatment
- reduce the risk that any impacts on your work will be seen as poor work performance.
If there is a chance that your job may have caused or contributed to the cancer, find out if you are entitled to workers compensation. Workers compensation laws may need you to notify your employer of your condition as soon as you can.
Talking to your employer
- You may feel more confident talking to your employer if you practise what you want to say with your family and friends.
- Decide beforehand how much information you want to share. Write down some notes to take with you, so you don’t forget anything.
- Consider having a support person with you to help with the discussion.
- Request a meeting in a quiet, private place where you won’t be interrupted – and allow plenty of time.
- Come to the meeting with some ideas or a plan for your needs, and how any impact on the workplace might be managed.
- Reassure your employer of your commitment to your job.
- Be prepared for your employer to talk about your working arrangements (e.g. they may ask if you want to work part-time or change shifts). If you’re not sure, ask for time to think about it.
- Let your employer know that you may need to revisit any plans you both make, depending on how you cope with treatment side effects, recovery, etc.
- Keep notes about the discussion, including date and time, what information you shared and any requests made. Importantly, write down any agreed changes to your working arrangements for you and your employer to sign.
- Don’t feel that you have to agree on everything in the first meeting. You may both need time to get more information.
- This is a good time to update your emergency contact person with your employer.
- Refer your employer to Cancer Council’s online workplace fact sheets for employers and workplaces or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to order free copies.
What are my rights to privacy?
If you tell your employer about your diagnosis, they should keep this information confidential. Your permission (consent) is needed to tell people other than your employer about your health. There are limits on how your employer can use this information in your workplace. For example, your manager can ask human resources (HR) how they can best support you, but they can’t tell your team without your permission. Rarely, your employer may share (disclose) information without your consent if there’s a serious health risk to others.
If your health information has been disclosed without your consent, talk to your employer. The person who shared the information may be disciplined. Visit the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner for advice or call them on 1300 363 992.
If you take paid personal leave because you are sick, your employer may need a medical certificate or other evidence confirming that you’re not fit for work. But the certificate doesn’t have to detail that you have cancer. Depending on how long you are away, your employer may ask for some details about why.
What details should I tell my employer?
What you tell your employer will depend on how much you want to share, your workplace and the relationship you have with your employer. You may want to let your employer know whether you:
- will be able to continue working (and for how long)
- need to take time off work (and when you are likely to return)will be able to perform all of your job duties
- want other people in your workplace to know
- need any workplace adjustments.
You may need to wait until you’ve started treatment or see how cancer affects you to know your ability. Things may also change. You may have unexpected side effects or need more time off than planned. You do not need to share all the details of your illness with your employer. You only need to tell them about anything that may affect your ability to work or cause a health and safety risk for yourself or others. This may include your exposure to viruses like COVID-19 if you are immunocompromised.
Can my employer dismiss me because I have cancer?
Discrimination in the workplace due to cancer and its treatment is illegal. This includes stopping you taking leave, offering you a more junior role or dismissing (firing, sacking) you, for a reason related to having cancer. There are limited reasons your employer can take certain action (e.g. when you can’t perform the main part of your job). If you are unsure how your employer will react, know your rights and your employer’s responsibilities.
How can my employer support me?
Under Australian law, cancer is considered a disability. If you cannot perform your usual work duties, federal and state/territory disability and non-discrimination laws require your employer to make changes to the workplace so you can keep working. These changes are known as reasonable adjustments.
An employer must allow you to work flexibly (within reasonable guidelines) and approve the changes within 21 days of any request. The only reason an employer can refuse your request is if it would cause unjustifiable hardship to their business or, in some cases, on reasonable business grounds. They may be able to refuse changes if you cannot perform the essential parts of your role.
Changes could be to your duties, workspace or hours. Changes could be temporary or long term. You and your employer can discuss ideas for possible changes. Your health care team may also have useful suggestions. Reasonable adjustments include:
- extra breaks because of pain, fatigue, or to attend appointments
- temporary duties as agreed, reduced hours, flexitime, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
- changes to the workspace such as a more suitable chair, height-adjustable desk or counter, or ergonomic work tools
- providing new technology, such as voice-activated software, telephone headsets, a hearing loop or screen-reading software
- setting you up to use the National Relay Service on your computer, tablet, mobile phone or telephone typewriter (TTY). This service helps people who have a hearing or speech impairment to make phone calls. For more information, visit Access Hub or call them on 1800 555 727.
Your employer can get advice, financial support and practical assistance to help support you through JobAccess, an Australian Government service.
Many employers have employee support systems, rehabilitation and retraining programs, or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers free, confidential counselling, including career counselling. Another option may be a buddy or mentoring system with someone in your workplace who has had cancer. Your co-workers may offer advice or help you liaise with management.
Should I tell my co-workers?
How much you share with your colleagues or team is a personal decision. You may not feel ready to talk about your health and want to avoid lots of questions. Talking about the diagnosis or treatment may make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. You may worry people will treat you differently. Managers may worry about how much to share with their team and the effect it may have, or what is considered professional or too personal. There are usually no rules about what is okay to share, so do what feels right for you.
If you tell your employer, you may want to let them know if you plan on telling your co-workers too. Things to consider include:
- your relationship with other staff (as a manager or co-worker)
- whether you feel your workplace is friendly and supportive, or distrustful and negative
- who you feel you can trust with personal matters
- team unity if you tell some people and not others
- how your workplace has dealt with other employees with cancer or a serious illness
- whether your co-workers need to know what to do if you are unwell at work.
It may be difficult to hide your illness if you work in a close team. Cancer or treatment side effects may change the way you look or act at work. You may be away or working from home more than usual. Co-workers may wonder about these changes. Some may even become resentful if it seems like you are getting special treatment, or not doing as much work, and they don’t know why.
If you do talk about the cancer with close workmates, they can show their concern for your wellbeing and ask how to help you.
Talking to your co-workers
- You don’t need to tell everyone, especially if you work in a large organisation. You may only want to tell your immediate team members or some of your close workmates.
- Decide beforehand how much information to share.
- Find a comfortable private place, and set a time to talk.
- Think about how you’ll handle different reactions. Some co-workers might be understanding, while others may feel uncomfortable or even be upset. Planning ahead will help you cope with different responses.
- Let your co-workers know about the kind of support and help you need, and how this may change over time. It’s okay to let them know that you don’t want to hear about other people’s cancer experiences or their advice.
- If the thought of telling people is overwhelming, you could send an email. It’s your news to share, so do it in whatever way works best for you.
- If you worry you’ll get upset talking to people, ask your manager, a close workmate or the HR manager to pass on the news for you. Be clear about what information you are happy to share and what you want to keep private.
- Some people find that news about their diagnosis spreads around the office. Let your co-workers know up-front if you would prefer the news to be kept confidential.
- If people talking or asking you about your health makes you upset, talk to your co-workers or ask your manager or HR person to get involved.
- If you decide that you want to keep the diagnosis to yourself, remember that information you share on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, may also be seen by your employer and coworkers. Consider setting up a separate social media group for those you are happy to share information about your health with.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed June 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.