Receiving a terminal diagnosis can be the most difficult news someone will ever hear. Many people in this situation will be in employment. And yet few employers have developed comprehensive support for employees with a terminal illness. CIPD research shows that just a third (33%) of UK organisations have specific provision such as a policy, guidance, line manager training or awareness-raising. 

Many of us find it very uncomfortable to talk about end-of-life illness and death. The stigma around these issues extends into the workplace. People professionals, and employers, have a responsibility to tackle this taboo and foster a compassionate culture that supports people with a terminal diagnosis. Many people need or want to carry on working with their diagnosis. With effective practical support and advice, they can continue to make a valuable contribution at work, and work safely and productively. 

This guide provides practical strategies on how to create a supportive culture and people management framework for employees with a terminal diagnosis. 

You should read this guide alongside the CIPD guide on supporting employees with long-term health conditions as its advice is also relevant. 

What is a terminal illness?

The legal position of terminally ill employees mainly depends upon the written and verbal agreement between employer and employee, including any special variations agreed after the terminal diagnosis. There is little specific terminal illness law, although a Terminal Illness (Support and Rights) Bill was introduced into Parliament in 2022. If enacted, it will introduce a new protected period, making it harder to dismiss those with a terminal illness. The current relevant legislation and legal obligations for UK employers are outlined below.

Create an inclusive and supportive culture

We don’t typically talk about serious illness, let alone death and dying, and this stigma spills into the workplace. Very often people are afraid to talk about terminal illness for fear of saying the wrong thing, and so say nothing at all. This can feel very isolating for someone with a terminal diagnosis. Employers can play an important role in breaking down these taboos. Employees working in supportive and compassionate environments are more likely to feel able to discuss a challenging life event, including a terminal illness, and to ask for help when needed.

Develop a framework to support employees

People professionals are ideally placed to develop a proactive framework to support people with a terminal illness. This should include specific policy provision, line manager guidance and education, as well as access to sources of expert health and wellbeing support.

Occupational benefits and health insurance

It’s important to carry out a review of your benefits and reward provision to ensure it offers effective financial support to employees with a terminal illness. Some benefits are more likely to be provided for everyone (such as occupational sick pay), while others (like private medical insurance) tend to be offered according to factors such as seniority. Here, we outline some of the relevant benefits and reward offerings that can be most effective to provide support to employees with a terminal diagnosis.

Manage absence and leave with compassion and flexibility

Living with a terminal illness can understandably require employees to take multiple absences from work. These could be short or long term. There’s likely to be many medical appointments and you should consider offering paid time off for these appointments (if you don’t already).

Promote good people management

Wider support for colleagues

As well as providing support and policy provision for employees with a terminal illness, your framework should consider the wider needs of other employees, including those who are caring for someone who is terminally ill. It should also provide compassionate bereavement support for employees who have lost a family member, friend or colleague through terminal illness.

Useful resources


More on this topic

Thought leadership
UK policy reforms needed to shift dial on economic participation of long-term sick

Urgent public policy reform to promote good work and health is needed to tackle long-term sickness absence

Bitesize research
Avoiding burnout when making tough decisions

How can employees build mental resilience to avoid burnout, and what support can employers give?

For Members
Bitesize research
Self-care for leaders to drive health and performance

Good leadership is important for organisational performance and employee outcomes, but what toll does this take on the leader?

For Members

Latest guides

Fire and rehire: Guide for employers

What this practice is, why you should avoid it, and how to approach it if no other options are available

How organisations can help tackle climate change

Guidance for HR professionals on how to embed environmental sustainability into all aspects of an organisation’s employee lifecycle

Sabbaticals: Guide for people professionals

This guide provides advice for employers on offering a period of sabbatical leave

Neuroinclusion at work

Learn about the benefits of having a neuroinclusive and fair organisation and how to support neurodivergent people to be comfortable and successful at work

All guides