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Liverpool City Council Equal Opportunities

Discrimination at work due to a cancer diagnosis

by Editorial Team

equality act

Research has shown that most employers aren't aware that cancer is covered under the Equality Act 2010 as a disability.


Your employer should provide help and support to enable you to do your job. The Equality Act 2010 has replaced discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales - including the Disability Discrimination Act - bringing them together under one piece of legislation. These laws protect the rights of workers who suffer from illnesses like cancer. However, research shows only one in five employers is aware of this, so many people go without the support they are entitled to. Almost half (47 per cent) of respondents to a 2010 YouGov survey said that when they informed their employer of their diagnosis they were not told about sick pay, workplace adjustments or flexible working arrangements.


Under the Equality Act, it’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because of their disability. Everyone with cancer is classed as disabled under the act, so employers have a duty not to discriminate against people with the disease and to make “reasonable adjustments” that are appropriate to an organisation’s size and structure.


The Equality Act protects anyone who has, or has had, cancer. Even if a person who had cancer in the past has been successfully treated and is now ‘cured’, they will still be covered by the act. This means their employer must not discriminate against them for a reason relating to their past cancer.


Your employer has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments’ to your workplace and working practices to ensure that you aren’t at a disadvantage compared to others.


What is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ depends on things such as:

  • the cost of making the adjustment
  • the amount the adjustment will benefit the employee
  • the practicality of making the adjustment
  • whether making the adjustment will affect the employer’s business/service/financial situation.


Some examples of a ‘reasonable adjustment’ include:

  • allowing an employee time off to attend medical appointments
  • modifying a job description to remove tasks that cause particular difficulty
  • allowing some flexibility in working hours
  • allowing extra breaks to help an employee cope with fatigue
  • temporarily allowing the employee to be restricted to ‘light duties’
  • adjusting performance targets to take into account the effect of sick leave/fatigue, etc on the employee
  • moving the employee to a post with more suitable duties (with the employee’s agreement)
  • moving a work base - for example, transferring to a ground-floor office if breathlessness makes it difficult to climb stairs
  • ensuring suitable access to premises for employees using wheelchairs/crutches, etc
  • providing toilet facilities appropriate for a disabled employee
  • allowing working from home
  • allowing a ‘phased (gradual) return’ to work after extended sick leave
  • providing appropriate software, such as voice-activated software for employees who can’t type.


The Equality Act covers all aspects of employment including the recruitment process; the terms, conditions and benefits of employment; and opportunities for promotion and training. It also covers unfair treatment compared to other workers, such as dismissal and harassment and victimisation.


If you want to know how the Equality Act can help you, phone the Equality and Human Rights Commission helplines, contact Citizens Advice or call the Macmillan Support Line.


Despite these laws, discrimination may still occur if your employer doesn’t take your situation into account. For example, this can include:

  • an employer not making reasonable changes to enable you to do the job (eg to cope with fatigue)
  • an employer giving you a warning for high sickness absence levels, but not taking the cancer diagnosis into account
  • an employer suggesting that a person with cancer would be better off not continuing to work
  • being dismissed for a reason relating to your cancer
  • being demoted to a lower-paid or less demanding job
  • being passed over for promotion in favour of someone with less experience or ability to do the job
  • being chosen for redundancy for a reason related to the cancer (eg, if you’ve used more sick leave than your colleagues)
  • not being given a job because of the cancer
  • not being allowed time off for medical appointments
  • having an unfavourable appraisal or performance review (eg if you’ve had a lot of sick leave or tiredness and haven’t met targets or objectives as a result of this)
  • an employer disrupting your entitlement to sick pay
  • being harassed - an employer making an employee’s life difficult so that the employee feels that they cannot stay in their job (eg being teased about hair loss, or being laughed at or whispered about by colleagues)
  • being abused by employers or colleagues (for example, being given unfair workloads)
  • victimisation.


Some problems may happen because of misunderstandings about your cancer. Your employer may assume that you can no longer do the same job, that you may be less committed to work because of your illness or that the stress of having cancer makes you a poor candidate for promotion.


Your colleagues may also think that they will need to do extra work because you can’t do your job. Any of these attitudes towards people with cancer can lead to subtle or obvious discrimination in the workplace.


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