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Could you be sacked for being terminally ill?

The Dying to Work campaign was launched by Jacci Woodcock MBE whose terminal cancer diagnosis...
Could you be sacked for being terminally ill?
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Could you be sacked for being terminally ill?

The Dying to Work Campaign, which aims to get additional employment protections for terminally ill employees, was launched by Jacci Woodcock MBE. In 2012, the ex-sales manager's terminal cancer diagnosis acted as an impetus for her to start fighting for a change in the laws around, and employer treatment of, terminally ill employees.

The campaign stemmed from Woodcock's employment experience after diagnosis. Initially, she didn't taken any time off. However, a year after diagnosis she describes being hit with, "a wall of exhaustion." Being signed off sick for a couple of weeks, Woodcock explains that upon her return to work it became apparent, after a meeting with HR, that her employer was making moves to “get rid of her.”

Writing about this experience on the Dying to Work site, she explained: “I began to feel anxious… I was upset but giving up was not an option. I thought this is not right, not fair and incredibly wrong. I feel strong and determined to use the time I have left to do my utmost to get the law changed to protect terminally ill people.”

What protections does the law currently offer terminally ill employees?

Under the Equality Act 2010, terminal illness is treated as a disability. Ergo: as long as employers can prove that they have made adjustments for the worker, they can then be sacked on grounds of diminished capability. TUC, the trade unions conglomerate, a body who support Woodcock's campaign, describe this as a 'loophole' that stops individuals with terminal illnesses from working.

In fact, the TUC believe that many terminally ill people want to continue in employment. A TUC spokesperson told HR Grapevine that continuing to work can help with both the mental and practical side of terminal illness. “A lot of workers with a terminal diagnosis decide that they want to continue working as long as they can, either because they need the financial security or because they find that their work can be a helpful distraction from their illness.

"Whichever choice a person makes, they should be able to expect help and support from their employer. Unfortunately, the experience of many workers is that their employer is either unsympathetic or puts up barriers to them continuing in work.”

A lot of workers with a terminal diagnosis decide that they want to continue working as long as they can, either because they need the financial security or because they find that their work can be a helpful distraction from their illness.
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What can employers do?

At the time of publication, legislation around terminally-ill employees hasn't changed – despite the efforts of the campaign. Yet some employers are changing working conditions for employees whose lives will be cut short. In the absence of legislative change, the TUC has launched the Dying to Work Charter which encourages employers to include a specific statement in their sick pay and absence procedures that states they will not dismiss any person with a terminal diagnosis. TUC also recommend that signed-up employers create a promise to provide assistance, regarding counselling and financial advice, for terminally ill employees as well. Working in tandem with the London-headquartered federation, employers are further encouraged to communicate to all employees, not just those with a terminal diagnosis, their promise of care for staff with terminal illnesses.

The Charter has proved popular. Currently, circa one million UK workers are covered by such an agreement. High-profile organisations such as E.ON, Rolls Royce, Royal Mail and Lloyds Bank have all signed up. TUC add that the benefits not only extend to employees – who receive promises from their employer and help around end-of-life care and administration – but to employers too.

Recognised by the Department of Work and Pension’s Disability Confident Scheme, a governmental campaign which seeks to improve attitudes towards the employment of disabled people, Dying to Work is recommended as a way to improve motivation and engagement within your workforce.

Disability Confident believe that employers should consider the “potential impact on the morale and productivity [of the whole workforce] if a valued member of a close-knit team received a terminal diagnosis and wasn’t supported fairly throughout their illness.”

A spokesperson for the TUC added: “We will continue to spread the adoption of the Charter to ensure more workers receive the protection they are entitled to. We won’t stop until this legislation is changed. This truly is about right and wrong.

“Put it this way, eventually we will close this loophole. And once this loophole is closed, who would dream of reopening it?"


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