How To Support Your Employee With Cancer

Due to the huge advances in the screening and treatment of cancer, the number of people diagnosed with cancer is increasing, with almost 60% of people living for 10 years or more. Cancer has become reclassified as a chronic condition. By 2030, 6% of the population will be living with cancer and this poses important challenges for our healthcare systems.

This challenge has intensified due to COVID, with cancer hitting the front of our newspapers and rising to the top of the agenda. The story of cancer is changing, one in two of us will be impacted in our lifetimes,  and we must all rise to the challenge to ensure that everyone living with cancer has access to care and help that meets all their needs. This is especially true when thinking about the workplace – in the UK, 1000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day. And of those, 36% are of working age. 

Presently there is little-to-no support focused on helping to remain in or return to work post-cancer treatment, even for those with comprehensive medical insurance. The average time taken to return to work fully is 18 months. For many years the long-term support provided to people with cancer has required further funding and innovation. Charities such as Macmillan who have been spearheading this movement, have highlighted the gap in service provision for decades, with cancer patients describing a sense of ‘abandonment’ once their treatment ends. 

“There are still those who survive their cancers but are lost in transition, who do not get the care they need, who find the healthcare system confusing and uncoordinated, and who continue to suffer with the late and long-term effects of curative cancer treatments.” – Going Beyond Being Lost in Transition: A Decade of Progress in Cancer Survivorship (2019) J Clin Oncol

Many people of working age will also be caring for someone with cancer. Currently,  700,000 people in the UK are juggling work and caring for someone. We’ve seen a large growth in targeted employee benefits to address complex or chronic conditions such as mental health, menopause and diabetes. And with an estimated £5.3 billion loss in productivity attributed to cancer in the UK alone, there is now an expectation for sensitive, effective support for employees impacted by cancer. 

How well the physical, psychological and social wellbeing needs of people affected by cancer are met, can determine whether their transition back to work will be successful or not. We spoke to Perci Health Cancer Nurse, Claire Taylor, to get her top tips on how to  support employees impacted by cancer (Perci Health is a virtual care clinic, connecting employees to human cancer experts.): 

Communication is key 

Observe how staff are looking and behaving. Use opportunities to ask open questions e.g. it may come up when you ask what sort of time off they might need for medical appointments and during treatment. Always show that you are listening; Use eye contact, encourage conversation by nodding or saying things like, ‘I see’ or ‘what happened next?’. Equally, they may wish not to speak about their experiences or aren’t ready to discuss them right away. Make sure you pick up on these cues and respect their right to privacy. 

To support this, provide training to line managers to help them better support your people. And also training generally on cancer awareness and risk reduction, to make the whole organisation more cancer aware and less of a taboo. 

Be sensitive to your employee’s needs and discuss a return-to-work plan

After cancer treatment is over, if a staff member has been on sick leave, you may need to agree on a flexible return-to-work plan with your employee. The plan might include changes to their hours, duties, or even workplace. 

Think about how you can provide your employees with tailored support over and above that currently provided by the NHS. What’s the baseline and how can you enhance this by working with providers (such as Perci Health), to give access to healthcare professionals, nurses, psychologists and others.

Be prepared to make adjustments and check guidelines and policies 

Employers can make a huge difference to the working lives of people affected by cancer.

This can often be done by making reasonable adjustments for the employee. Some people may be able to continue working through treatment. Other people may have to stop. Remember that under equality laws, your employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off to attend hospital appointments.

Check if you have a clear cancer policy which sets out the support available for those with a cancer diagnosis, those affected by a family member’s diagnosis, or those who become a carer. This policy should cover support available at all stages – from diagnosis, during treatment, after treatment returning to work or if treatment is unsuccessful or people are left with long-term disabilities. It should cover what support is available to help them work during treatment, how to make the decision to stop working, and what support is available to return to work.

Respect the person’s feelings and wishes

Ask if they want colleagues to know and what information should be shared. It’s normal to worry about saying the wrong thing. Focus more on listening. It is easy to jump to problem-solving. Resist this temptation and let the employee lead.

Don’t forget the impact cancer has on carers too

Carers are at increased risk of depression, isolation and poor physical or mental health. Show empathy and ask open questions. Understand that they may also need flexibility within their work schedule. When checking your cancer policy ensure you discuss the support available for carers and include a clear definition of who you consider to be a carer.

Final thoughts

Cancer affects every person differently. It is difficult to predict what will happen to any individual. A flexible approach is essential to ensuring employees are happy, healthy and can return to work successfully. 

About the authors:

Kelly McCabe – Perci Health Co-Founder and CEO

Morgan Fitzsimons -Perci Health Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer

Dr. Claire Taylor, MBE – Perci Health Cancer Nurse Specialist and Macmillan Nurse Consultant

Perci Health: Personalised support for everyone impacted by cancer. We connect employees to human cancer experts for support when they need it most, all through our virtual clinic. 

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