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Helping employees work through cancer

According to Cancer Research UK, 1 in 2 of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives1, while Macmillan predicts that 4 million people will be living with cancer in 20302.

In 2015, there were an estimated 890,000 people of working age living with cancer in the UK – a figure that’s set to increase to 1,150,000 by 20303. How your business tackles cancer in the workplace and looks after employees with – or recovering from – cancer will become even more vital in the years to come.

During this highly stressful and often confusing time, work can provide a sense of normality and routine. However, your business may lack the knowledge, understanding and support an employee needs.

Your business and senior staff may also struggle. Would you feel confident broaching the subject? Would you know what to say during the ups and downs of treatment? Or how would you make your employee’s day as comfortable as possible?

In 2019, our parent company Unum surveyed 300 working men and women who had received treatment for cancer in the previous five years4 to reveal the true state of play of cancer in the workplace today. Here are some key insights and steps you can take to ensure employees who want to work, can work – now and in the future.

Employees’ biggest challenges 

Cancer can affect people both psychologically and physically. Meanwhile, undergoing repetitive treatment or an operation, and the subsequent recovery needs time. But a third (32%) of those surveyed said getting time off from work was one of their biggest challenges.

Treatment can also be exhausting. A touch under a third (30%) of employees admitted they felt tired while at work, while 19% of respondents found feeling distracted was another challenge.

Where employers are going wrong

Supporting an employee with cancer mainly falls on the shoulders of HR and/or the line manager. But they may be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, or at a loss how to manage an employee who may be angry, upset or who understandably has more on their mind than the latest project deadline or meeting. Another problem for the employer (and employee) can be a lack of awareness of what internal and external support is available or how to access it.

More than a third (40%) of employees said they were not familiar or not familiar at all with what resources their employer had in place before being diagnosed. Worryingly, a little under a third (28%) said the support fell below their expectations, or they’d received no support at all.

The benefits of being a supportive employer

Ensuring employees wellbeing is part and parcel of your business strategy is the right thing to do and can benefit the business. Simply, the more an employee feels cared for, the more reason for them to stay. It can also correspond to better business performance via the knowledge and experience a longer-term employee provides, potentially resulting in increased productivity.

In the survey, a huge 84% of employees agreed that the level of support they received had a definite or possible correlation to their company loyalty (or disloyalty). More than half (56%) were more grateful to their employer for their support during their cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, while over a quarter (27%) said it had made them more productive.

However, 52% also thought they could have returned to work sooner if they’d received better support.

The financial impact of cancer

Most conversations around cancer understandably revolve around its physical and psychological aspects. However, a cancer diagnosis can also impact people financially.

The biggest financial blow was caused by their own or their partner’s inability to work full or part-time, with 61% listing it in their top three costs. Travelling to and from appointments featured in 42% of lists, while 30% of people said higher household bills were a problem, through spending more time at home or sensitivity to changes in temperature.

The possible financial outcome was also a major concern. 74% of employees were worried about how their family would cope with the loss of income if they had to give up work.

How can you support employees with cancer?

It’s clear employers can do more both internally, and with external support and expertise.

Treat everyone as an individual: Returning to work is just the start, not the finish. So remember that everyone’s cancer journey is individual. Support is not a one-size fits all approach and what works for one person may not work for another. Communication should be sensitive, confidential (or as confidential as the employee wants it to be) and a continuously open two-way street, where the employee knows they’re valued.

Review working hours: Introducing flexible hours or enabling people to work remotely can help your employees with fatigue, allow them to attend appointments or treatment sessions, and aid recovery following a session. Even ensuring they take and make the best of rest periods can help. You could also reduce their duties, responsibilities or targets, if appropriate, and that’s what the employee wants. Even ensuring they take and make the best of rest periods can help. You could also reduce their duties, responsibilities or targets, if appropriate, and that’s what the employee wants.

Educate line managers: To ensure your HR people or line managers can offer the best possible support, a number of organisations provide practical suggestions to help employers. Macmillan has a dedicated page for employers, including training and Maggie’s also offers valuable advice and tools. These can give a better understanding of the likely effects of cancer and its treatments - leading to greater confidence in discussing the needs of affected employees.

Again, the survey backed these initiatives up. More than a third (42%) said offering reduced or flexible hours was one of the most valuable ways an employer can help, while a little under a third (29%) appreciated the offer to work from home. A touch over a quarter (27%) also felt access to counselling or emotional support was (or would be) a valuable resource.

Critical Illness Insurance through Benni

The gloomy cancer forecast shows how important it is for employers to have a critical illness policy in place.

Critical Illness Insurance through Benni can help employees financially, with a tax-free lump sum benefit, helping peace of mind at a difficult time.

Tools and resources

Together with our parent company, Unum, we have a range of tools to help employers supporting employees living with cancer.

Podcast - Lifestyle and cancer: This podcast speaks to healthcare provider Reframe about ways to lower the risk of cancer via positive lifestyle choices...

Listen here

Online cancer workshop: This CPD-accredited-workshop walks you through modules looking at the physical and psychological side effects of cancer, and its treatment. It also includes downloadable tools and resources.

Complete Unum's cancer in the workplace e-module

Employee guide - 5 top tips to reduce your risk of cancer: Promote wellbeing at work by sharing this handy guide with your employees

Download the guide

However you choose to support your employees – whether it’s with more support within the workplace, flexible working or by extending your employee benefits package, an investment in the physical and emotional wellbeing of someone with a cancer diagnosis is likely to go a long way.

1 Cancer Research UK

2 Macmillan Cancer Support Fact sheet Feb 2019

3 Macmillan Cancer Support 2017 update – The Rich Picture – People of working age with cancer

4 Unum’s 2019 survey of 300 working adults who have been diagnosed with or received treatment for Cancer within the past 5 years, equal split of males and females

Please note, Benni is not responsible for the content of any third-party websites referenced.

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