Fixer: How can we help a terminally ill colleague who is determined to keep working?

We want to be supportive but without jeopardising the business

A member of our staff has very sadly been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She has been incredibly brave throughout and the organisation has supported her during sickness absence and with time off for medical appointments. She is determined to carry on working as long as she can. However, unfortunately her estimation of her ability to continue in her role and the business’s are very different, and we don’t feel it’s in either her best interests or the organisation’s for her to keep working. How can we still be supportive as an employer but ultimately suggest the time may be right for her to leave?

This is a very sad situation and one we’ve unfortunately had to deal with on several occasions, but it’s never easy. If the employee is no longer capable of performing their role, then we’d suggest you first arrange an occupational health review or get her permission to access her medical records. It’s important to get a medical opinion on her capability and not just what you are observing. If this confirms that she can’t continue working, even with reasonable adjustments being put in place, then you need to decide next steps.

Is the employee eligible for group life assurance? If the answer is yes, then you need to keep her on payroll so that a claim can be made under the scheme. But how do you maintain employment in the meantime? If you have critical illness cover or permanent health insurance, these can make things easier because you would move to make an application under either scheme. If your claim is accepted, they will transfer to insurance payments after a qualifying period.

If this isn’t the case, we’d suggest you consider making an ex gratia sickness absence payment to the employee until she passes away. The last thing the employee needs is to be concerned about financial pressures when she is seriously ill. If this isn’t possible, then exhaust your normal sick pay scheme and move to unpaid leave until she passes away, keeping her informed throughout. After all, do you and the organisation think it is the right thing to dismiss someone who is terminally ill?

Husband and wife team Rob and Nicci Birley have run their own full service HR consultancy, Cornerstone Resources, since late 2017, partnering with small businesses and charities throughout the UK. Prior to this, they both spent more than 20 years each working in a range of specialist and generalist HR roles across a range of sectors.

Nicci specialises in management coaching, mentoring, recruitment, change management and improving organisational performance. Rob specialises in complex employee issues and salaries, pensions and benefits.

Their replies are written in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of People Management or the CIPD, nor are they a substitute for professional legal advice. Not all queries submitted can be answered, and personal replies are not possible. To pose an anonymous query, visit