14/06/2016 07:28 BST | Updated 14/06/2017 06:12 BST

Should You Tell Your Boss If You Have Cancer?

Under the current legislation you don't have to tell your boss if you have cancer. The worry for many people is what it means for their career - will they be written off, never again seen as an effective, 'can-do' employee? Being open about such a serious condition is important when it comes to getting support and understanding, making sure you get the flexibility you need from an employer.

But is your manager ready to provide the kind of thoughtful, well-managed and supportive response you were hoping for? A new piece of research based on evidence from 500 HR managers at UK firms says maybe not. 71% of the participants said their organisation didn't have any policies in place for communications and management of employees with a cancer diagnosis. This figure rises to 89% among small firms. The same is true when it comes to dealing with employees who make a recovery and are looking to return to work. Around half thought the line managers in their organisation were unprepared for managing employees with cancer. At the same time, over half think the line manager relationship is one of the most important forms of support for employees with cancer.

We're experiencing a cancer epidemic. Figures from Cancer Research UK show a 12% increase in the rate of cancer since the mid-90s; more than 352,000 people are now diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year, compared with more than 253,000 two decades ago. Of those, more than 100,000 are of working age, and estimates suggest that in total over 750,000 people of working age are now living with a cancer diagnosis. Cancer is also the biggest cause of long-term sickness claims, accounting for almost a third in 2015. The good news is that survival rates are increasing too. 50% of patients are now surviving 10 years after a cancer diagnosis. This doesn't necessarily make things easier for employers. Cancer is more like a chronic illness, requiring longer-term attention and treatment and appropriate support from employers as part of the 'duty of care' legal requirement. Also, more than a third of the entire UK workforce will be over 50 by 2020 - meaning a growing proportion of employees affected by cancer.

Part of the problem is the the low levels of recognition among senior executives within organisations for the potential implications of cancer in the workplace. 40% say they don't think senior executives in their organisation are aware of the potential risks and costs. Just 12% say they think senior executives are very aware of the risks and costs presented. There's also the reliance on the NHS as an organisation which will monitor, anticipate and handle any health issue. 43% of HR managers in the research wrongly thought prostate cancer was screened routinely by the NHS; 22% thought testicular cancer and 17% thought lung cancer were checked, when they're not.

Managers are being expected to provide reactive responses to highly emotional and difficult situations. Employees dealing with cancer want to feel they are dealing with human beings and not a corporate entity. But in order to feel confident enough to take the personal approach, managers need to be clear on best practice, what they can and can't offer, when it's necessary to draw the line between keeping an employee at work and safety, the resources available to help.

Employers expect transparency and honesty, but when it comes to cancer, people have to feel confident they'll get a thought-through response, because, ultimately, staying in work as far as possible - with the friends and the sense of routine and normality that provides - can be a vitally important part of recovery.