Cancer and the workplace

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Published: 19 Jun 2017
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Prof Diana Kloss - Manchester University, Manchester, UK

Prof Kloss talks to ecancer at IFCPE 2017 about the need to highlight the rights of cancer patients in relation to work.

She discusses her research into helping recovering patients get back into work as part of their care.

Employment protections for cancer patients and their families was discussed by Silvia Fernández Martínez, here.

We are special in the sense that in Great Britain cancer is automatically a disability from diagnosis, so that anybody with cancer of any kind is protected by the law immediately they are diagnosed with that cancer. That’s different from most other member states. But what I’m talking about is the duty of the employer first of all not to discriminate, not to turn somebody down for a job or promotion just because they’ve got cancer or they’ve had cancer. But also under the directive and under our law there’s a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments, which means that they have to do more for somebody with a disability than for somebody without.

A cancer patient, for example, can say “I can’t come back to work full time straight away, I’ve had an operation, I’ve had chemo. I’d like to come back part time, at least for a few months.” The employer would have a duty to consider that and, if it was practical and if they could afford it, to give them that right to part time working. Or the employer might have a duty to provide, say, particular access to the building, perhaps an office on the ground floor if the person was mobility impaired. Or the employer might have a duty to provide a special chair or special computer software, depending of course on the particular disability of the person. It means that it’s easier, hopefully, for cancer patients, when they are ready to come back to work, and hopefully they will be, to get back into the workplace because they employer’s got to do more for them than for other employees and spend more money to assist them.

Are cancer patients aware of this?

That’s been a problem. Macmillan Cancer, which is the big cancer charity in the UK, they now have a programme in which they are publicising the rights of cancer patients and they’re also offering their services to go into workplaces and talk to managers about the rights of people with cancer and help them in the ways in which people with cancer can be allowed back to work.

If I could say just one other thing, I’m also the chair of the Council for Work and Health, which is our body in the United Kingdom which represents everybody involved in occupational health provision – doctors and nurses and physiotherapists and psychologists and also health and safety people. One of the messages that we’re trying to put across is that work is a clinical outcome. Today I’ve been hearing about doctors treating patients and about the question of cure, the question of palliative care, but nobody’s saying one of the best things helping somebody who’s had cancer is to get them back to work, if they’re of working age, of course. That’s something which medical schools aren’t teaching students. We’re trying to get across to medical students – you’ve got to teach your doctors not just to ask whether the person can walk and talk and see and hear but can they get back to work?

Could the UK legislation influence change in Europe?

We’re going to lose the power of the European Court. The European Court has been powerful, for example, it has forced other member states. Denmark, a leading case, went to the European Court about Mrs Ring, who had a very bad back, and she was denied part-time working, and the European Court, the Luxembourg Court, held that there was a duty of reasonable adjustment, she had a disability, and therefore part-time working might be something which the employer should have considered. You might be interested to know that the European Court has adopted a definition of disability which is the biopsychosocial definition. They’ve taken it from the United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and so it’s not just a question of physical or medical disability, they’ve said it’s a question of the way society regards you. That is very advanced, I think – the European Court has done some very good work. But at the end of the day, no legal right is worth having unless it’s enforceable, and that’s a particular problem, I think, in many member states. In the UK we now have fees charged to go to tribunals and the claim rate has dropped by 70% because people, by definition, they are unemployed and they just can’t afford the fees. That’s something which has been litigated in our courts at the moment and parliament has been lobbied about.

How did you first become involved in these changes?

I became interested in the European aspect of this through being invited to speak at an event organised by an organisation called CANWON, which is a European Union-funded organisation, I think organised from the Netherlands. It’s researchers from all over Europe who are doing research into people with disabilities, particularly cancer, getting back into the workplace. This is an issue, obviously, which all member states are interested in, and I think they are continuing to have meetings and to discuss and obviously make proposals for changes. So that may be something in the pipeline.