There are around 900,000 people of working age living with cancer in the UK and this number is expected to increase to 1,150,000 by 2030. Three in every four people survive their cancer the first year after being diagnosed according to NHS England.
This means that more people are likely to experience cancer in the workplace than ever before. Work is often very important for those affected by cancer, a job can restore a sense of normality and wellbeing, and provide a sense of purpose as well as financial benefits.
However, returning to and staying in work is not always easy. Whilst employers have specific legal responsibilities towards employees affected by cancer under the Equality Act 2010, this article explores how employers can provide good additional support.
A good example of this in practice is Benenden Health, who recently carried out research with their members to understand their concerns around cancer. The research revealed that fear and lack of knowledge of the health system was a big concern, members felt that they wouldn’t know what to do, who to turn to, and who to ask questions if they got cancer. Their experience of the NHS was often that the system was confusing to access and hurried at appointments and genuine time with experts to ask questions and gain understanding was needed.
They decided to partner with a company that could provide all this additional support, and we have been working with them since June 2022 to do just that. In the first 12 months, over 330 Benenden Health members accessed our support.
The impact of cancer
There are more than 200 different types of cancer, with many different treatments, many have long-term side effects, symptoms to manage and the impacts can be very wide-ranging including:
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is usually a big shock for some people, while others may try to carry on as if nothing is wrong. Common emotions that people experience include:
- anger or bitterness
- fear of the disease, treatment and dying
- loneliness and isolation
The emotional impact is not limited to diagnosis, it often continues long-term, through surgery, treatment and long after recovery. People going through cancer are often also very concerned about the impact of their illness on their family and relationships.
Cancer and its treatment can cause physical changes, so employers, line managers and colleagues need to be prepared for this. Although it depends on the individual, obvious changes can include:
- hair loss
- changes in complexion or skin tone
- altered appearance after surgery
- weight loss or gain
- reduced mobility
This is a common symptom of cancer and its treatment. It can be worse at different stages of treatment, or at different times of the day. Fatigue manifests itself in many ways and might continue long after treatment is over. It might mean your employee:
- finds it harder to perform certain tasks
- has less strength and energy than before
- has difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- becomes exhausted during meetings or after light activity
- struggles to control their emotions
- experiences dizziness or is ‘light-headed’ from time-to-time
Cancer turns life upside down for the patient and their family. There are many practical implications such as caring for children or elderly parents, many hospital appointments, mobility issues, domestic duties etc.
Good cancer support for employees
Everyone’s experience of cancer is different with different impacts and personal circumstances. Therefore there is no one-size-fits-all approach with it comes to cancer support.
The most beneficial support is via a long-term one-to-one relationship with an experienced professional such as a registered nurse, providing stability in what is often a very turbulent experience. This ensures that there are no gaps in support and individuals don’t need to self-navigate the complexities of the health system. The key attributes of good cancer support include:
- Emotional Support – Having a trusted experienced professional separate to an employee’s network of family and friends can be a confidante and make a huge difference.
- Holistic – the impact of cancer is very wide ranging, from the physical symptoms, treatment and surgery, the emotional impacts and the practical implications. It is important that all aspects are addressed together by the same professional
- Clinically assessed therapies – whilst treatment for cancer on the NHS is excellent, sometimes additional services may be beneficial. It is important that the individual’s needs are clinically assessed to ensure that the most appropriate form of therapy, service or equipment is provided. This might include specialist physiotherapy, practical help at home, eldercare advice, equipment hire or return-to-work cancer coaching
- Information and Signposting – There is a wealth of information and numerous local and national charities helping with many aspects of cancer. Seeking this out when affected is extremely difficult, the provision of the information and resources tailored for the individual is a big help.
- Technology – whilst human support is vital to those impacted by a serious illness such as cancer. Technology in the form of apps can be helpful in providing information, logging symptoms, sharing progress with family and colleagues and keeping track of the many appointments.
- Return-to-Work support – the mental impact of anticipating returning to the workplace can be a bit concern. Employees are often worried about how their colleagues will react, treat them differently and many don’t think they’ll be able to do the job to the same level again. All of these concerns can all be a big cause of anxiety and often hold people back, support from an experienced professional can support an employee to have a successful return to work.
Employees who have caring responsibilities for a relative with cancer are often heavily impacted to a point affecting their own wellbeing and ability to work. They often find it difficult to juggle their role with the many additional practical implications, such as increased childcare, domestic duties, hospital visits as well as worries about the welfare and long-term prognosis of the individual with cancer.
Employers should remember to cater for carers within the provision of cancer support, as all the key attributes are equally necessary.
Sources of Cancer Support
Long-term, personalised support for Cancer is available to employers directly or via group insurance policies, including Benenden Health.
Employers are advised to look into the detail of support offered by insurers to ensure that good quality professional support is available to their employees who are unfortunately impacted by cancer.
Every cancer journey is different and good quality support recognises this, starting with an experienced professional continually reassessing the specific needs of the individual and providing tailored support throughout.
Christine spent the initial part of her career in financial roles within the chemical industry before moving into financial services. Since then, Christine has held several directorships and is a Chartered Director and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors.