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Conversation at work about terminal illness

Supporting employees affected by terminal illness

It’s important for employers to support their people affected by terminal illness.

Terminal illness is a very upsetting and difficult thing for anybody to come to terms with. With research suggesting around 90,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer every year, it’s important that employers are well equipped to support their employees through this difficult time.  Here are some simple steps to help employees after a terminal diagnosis. 

What to say if an employee says they have a terminal illness

A terminal illness can be defined as a health condition with no known cure, that may last for years managed with medication and treatments. You may also hear them referred to as ‘life-limiting’ or ‘chronic’ conditions - examples are cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

You can find out more about how to manage a multigenerational workforce and their wellbeing needs by downloading our free employer’s guide today.

If an employee tells you they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s important to encourage open dialogue. Make sure they know their conversations will be kept confidential. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their line manager, it may be more appropriate to speak to someone in HR or another senior member of staff.

If they’ve recently been diagnosed, they may not yet know how long they’ll carry on working, if at all. So, arranging regular catch-ups over this period of time will be valuable for you both.

It’s also important to discuss whether they feel comfortable sharing the news of their situation with their peers. It may be something they want to do in their own time. Or perhaps they’d like help telling people in an appropriate way. Either way, make sure they know their decision is respected. The news should only be shared with others when they give full consent.

What changes can you make to accommodate an employee with a life ending disease?

The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability – which includes terminal illnesses. This might include specific furniture or accessibility aids to make sure they’re able to work comfortably.

Whilst it’s necessary to have certain policies and procedures in place for unwell employees, it’s important to acknowledge that no two experiences are the same. First and foremost, employers should treat employees as individuals. Make sure you approach each situation with an open mind where possible. This will help the employee feel valued and enable your company to provide the most appropriate support for their needs.

What key things should you be aware of as an employer?

In addition to the legal requirements you need to put in place, there are emotional needs need to consider.

In the early stages, terminal illnesses are full of uncertainty and waiting for a diagnosis can easily lead to overwhelm for your employee. And once they receive a terminal diagnosis, emotions take a different turn again. People often feel anxious, depressed angry and isolated, so make sure you have measures in place to support a variety of emotions.

Financial stability is likely to be a big worry for terminally ill employees. Make sure you have an open and honest conversation about their situation. It’s best to recommend they seek expert advice before any formal action is taken.

This type of situation will also impact the rest of your workforce. This is especially true if they work closely with the individual or have known them for a long time.

Not everyone will respond to a situation like this in the same way. And for many employees, this could be the first time they’ve known someone with a terminal illness. Make sure they’re given time to process the news and acknowledge their individual needs where you can.

What support can you offer to an employee with a terminal illness?

Be flexible where you can

Employees with a terminal illness are likely going to have regular medical appointments. They’ll also want to spend as much time with their loved ones as possible. If their health deteriorates, they may need more rest. Offering flexible working hours or the ability to work from home can be beneficial to them as well as your business.

Provide clarity on their sick pay

Most of these employees will need to take time off for treatment. Make sure they’re aware of the sick pay they’re entitled to, particularly if your company adjusts the standard policy to help. Clarity around finances will help relieve extra stress and allow them to decide how long to remain working.

Provide an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)

Providing an EAP line can be particularly valuable to an employee with a terminal illness. They’re likely to feel stressed, anxious or depressed at times, and may have financial worries if they have a family to provide for.

A full EAP comes as standard with Benenden Healthcare for Business. It’s accessible 24/7 so employees can speak to a qualified counsellor whenever they need some support.

Regularly review their workload

Regularly review the employee’s workload and responsibilities, as their situation is likely to change over time. Having an open discussion will help you understand what’s realistic and where adjustments should be made.

Keep in touch

If the employee needs to take significant time off work, consider keeping in touch by sending them a card and making regular phone calls. Checking in to see how they’re feeling and if there’s anything the company can do to help, will demonstrate that they’re a valued member of the team.

Going the extra mile to make life as comfortable as possible for a terminally unwell employee will not only help improve their quality of life, but it’ll benefit your business too. If it’s seen that you’re not providing genuine and meaningful support, it could cause irreversible damage to your company’s culture.

On the other hand, showing that you genuinely care about your employees will encourage staff loyalty, engagement and morale. It’ll be a glowing representation of a supportive workplace culture.

What external support options are available?

Gaining an understanding of your employee’s illness can help with any conversations. You don’t need to be a medical expert, but having a basic awareness of the key symptoms, signs of progression and how it impacts the employee’s work and personal life is key to providing the right support. Feeling understood can also make the employee feel more comfortable talking about their situation.

Many charities provide free guides to helping employees with terminal illnesses. Do your research about the specific illness and reach out for help if you need to. Some useful documents for supporting your employees with terminal illnesses are:

Macmillan Cancer Support

The Macmillan guide for supporting employees affected by cancer provides in-depth advice on how cancer affects people. It also gives guidance on how you can support employees. All while minimising the impact on daily operations.

Alzheimer’s Society

The Alzheimer’s Society provide a free comprehensive guide to creating a dementia friendly workplace. It features useful situational examples to help visualise how to put it all into practice.


For more information about the legal requirements of employees with terminal illnesses, Unison provides a great guide to creating a positive work-life for the terminally ill.


Our business healthcare

Benenden Healthcare for Business provides an affordable, high quality, private healthcare solution to support all your employees. With easy setup and no exclusions on pre-existing medical conditions, we want to help make healthcare a standard of employment for everyone, rather than just a perk for the few. See how we can help you develop a healthcare solution that works for your whole business.

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179 today.