Efforts to end management discrimination towards staff with cancer have taken centre stage in the news agenda, with homeware retailer Wilko announcing that it has signed up to the TUC’s Dying to Work Charter. 
Wilko’s decision stemmed from a renewed push to raise awareness of the TUC scheme, spurred by fellow union the GMB, after one of its members – Milford-based sales manager Jacci Woodcock – was forced out of her job following a diagnosis of incurable breast cancer.
As the GMB noted in a statement: “The voluntary Charter sets out [ways in which] an employer can support an employee with a terminal illness, by treating them with respect and dignity. By signing, the Charter signatory commits to protect the death-in-service benefits of the employee, so they have a greater financial reassurance for the loved ones they leave behind.”
The Charter also seeks greater job security for terminally ill workers by making provisions for a ‘protected period’, during which firms are unable to summarily dismiss stricken employees on the basis of their condition.
GMB Wales & South West lead officer for Wilko Nicola Savage said: “The Dying to Work Charter is important for the future of our members working within Wilko who have had a terminal diagnosis. Wilko employs over 19,000 staff across their portfolio and the aims of the Charter are to provide a safe and supportive workplace where individuals can … have adequate employment protection for themselves and their families.”
Wilko’s move follows recent figures from Macmillan, showing that record numbers of cancer-suffering employees are facing discrimination as bosses question their fitness for work.  Meanwhile, Belgian MEP Lieve Wierinck – herself a cancer survivor – has urged leaders to grant breast cancer patients flexible-working arrangements, saying: “I was very happy to go to work because that was part of the rehabilitation process. But for many it is not so easy, and returning to work is a real problem because of the inflexibility of their employers. This has to change because cancer patients still have an awful lot to contribute to the workplace.” 
How must firms modify their outlooks and attitudes to ensure that discrimination towards these particularly vulnerable and anxious employees is stamped out?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There are so many similarities between employees who are suffering from cancer – and other, physical ailments that are currently incurable – and those who are dealing with mental health issues. Across those categories, there will be staff who take the view that they are still eminently capable of coming into work, and feel that the process of being there will contribute to the maintenance of their psychological wellbeing.”
Cooper notes: “What I find really shocking about this type of discrimination is that if an employee was hit by a bus and tragically killed, management would instantly rally round – doing everything in their power to ensure that the family’s distress was recognised, the death-in-service benefit was paid and that tangible company representation would grace the funeral. That would be the typical response to the shock of a sudden death. But it seems that from the moment we know that someone’s life is under threat, we are somehow less kind or sympathetic.”
She explains: “If we were able to see the diagnosis – and/or prognosis – as an equivalent shock, and from that point on do everything we could to help the worker concerned manage the ensuing lifestyle impacts, and do so as fairly as possible, there would be an outcome other than acrimony between the worker and the organisation. So the challenge is, once some serious information about an employee’s health comes to light, we accommodate it. We adapt to it. And then we look at ways of improving the subsequent experience – which in this case would mean exploring compassionate alternatives to terminating the worker’s contract of employment.”
Cooper points out: “Organisations have bandied about the phrase ‘people are our greatest asset’ so often that is has become almost a cliché. But for some of them, the sincerity of that phrase is far from deeply felt. What they really mean is, ‘People are our greatest asset as long as they’re 100% well and 100% productive – but if they show any deviation from that rigid, straight line, they cease to be our greatest asset and become a liability.’ If you are genuine about people being your greatest asset, you must recognise that the majority of people will encounter periods in which their ability to engage with their work is going to be lower than it is at other times.”
She adds: “If, by treating those people more compassionately, we send out a strong message about how we handle our workers’ health difficulties, we will not only earn the appreciation of the affected staff, but inspire loyalty within other areas of the workforce. It is not just about the individual and their family who are doing their best to manage a challenging situation. It’s about how they are treated, how they expect to be treated – and the messages that our treatment sends out to everyone in their professional and social orbits about whether or not we are compassionate employers.”
For further thoughts on wellbeing and mental health, check out this learning module from the Institute