HR Management & Compliance

Employees with cancer: What accommodations may be needed?

An employee with cancer will be covered as a disabled employee as defined by the ADA, and as such, employers need to understand what types of accommodations might be appropriate for an employee with cancer who is returning to work.

“Work is important to all of us, and for a cancer patient, equally so.” Alan G. Rosmarin, MD, pointed out in a recent CER webinar. Returning to work is especially important to cancer patients because it provides:

  • Income. Income of course is critical for maintaining our families and the way we live our lives.
  • Maintenance of health insurance. Obviously this will be critically important for anyone with a chronic illness.
  • A component of self-image. When we regain our routine and feel productive, we feel good about ourselves.
  • Relationships with coworkers. Our individual identities are affected by our work and our relationships with coworkers.
  • Independence and autonomy. Returning to work can bring back a sense of independence for someone dealing with a chronic illness.

Accommodating an employee with cancer: Employer concerns

When welcoming an employee with cancer back to work, employers often wonder what types of accommodations might be needed. They also have some general concerns:

  • Supervisors may hold incorrect assumptions about what cancer survivors can and cannot do.
  • Some may misunderstand cancer or fear contagion.
  • Some may view all cancer as a death sentence or assume that the employee will not be able to return to work.
  • Will the employee’s performance/productivity be impaired?
  • Will the employee need to leave town for treatments?
  • What will be the time requirements for treatment, follow-up visits, and other medical needs?
  • Will the employer’s insurance rates rise?

Additionally, the employer needs to be concerned about providing appropriate accommodations when needed. Reasonable accommodation for cancer patients might include:

  • Reduced hours
  • Flexible schedule
  • Lighter duty
  • Work from home
  • Reassignment to vacant positions
  • FMLA or other leave time
  • Re-evaluation of responsibilities and adjustment of duties if necessary

Disclosing the diagnosis of an employee with cancer

When accommodating any disabled employee, questions may arise from others. This raises the issue of disclosure of the employee’s condition. This may be necessary – to a small, select group – if formal accommodations are made.

“In general, disclosure is preferable in a private conversation or in a group meeting with select coworkers so we can best protect the privacy of an individual.” Rosmarin noted. But remember: “It’s not necessary to disclose the diagnosis unless formal accommodations must be made.”

The above information is excerpted from the webinar “Employees with Cancer: Commonsense Answers for ADA, FMLA, and Privacy Compliance.” To register for a future webinar, visit CER webinars.

Alan G. Rosmarin, MD, is chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology, which provides expert diagnosis, treatment and support of cancer patients, as well as extensive research and clinical trials, within the Department of Medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. Rosmarin also serves as the deputy director of the UMass Memorial Cancer Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and UMass Memorial.