In depth feature: How employers can support employees during a cancer diagnosis

Employers need to wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to dealing with employees with cancer: figures from Macmillan show that around 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every single day in the UK so there has never been a greater need for employers to provide for their staff in ensuring that they have appropriate financial, medical, emotional and practical support in place.

The hidden impact of a cancer diagnosis

Of course, a cancer diagnosis itself is devastating, but the side of cancer that most often gets overlooked is the work and income implications.  Here is Cath’s story, from Macmillan Cancer Support:

“I was told that I could be off work for up to 12 months. And then it hit me. Wow, how am I going to pay my bills?
After the diagnosis, when my wages stopped, my income went down £100, £150 per week. But I still had to survive. I started thinking, well, all the bills have still got to be paid, even though I’m ill. You never imagine that you have to save for cancer. Strangely enough, when I became ill all my expenses increased too. I had to buy gluten-free bread, which was over £2 a loaf instead of 35p. And my heating bills went up because I felt cold all the time.”

As awful as a cancer diagnosis is, many employees WILL recover and return to work eventually – so it makes sense for workplaces to provide support and make provision for the 1,000 people who will wake up in Cath’s situation today.


Managing absence after a cancer diagnosis

It is important to remember that cancer is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, and employers are required to make reasonable adjustments accordingly.

Absence management expert Adrian Lewis, from Activ Absence, believes that with ANY protected characteristic, it makes sense for employers to record absence separately.  He says:

“An employee recently diagnosed with cancer may already have a high rate of absence prior to diagnosis.  Sickness absence may still need to be recorded, but best practice would be to record absence due to protected characteristics separately.  Some absence management systems will separate out the reason for absence anyway, but manual systems often don’t.  

Line managers will need guidance from HR on the best way to support an employee with cancer, and should guide the employee towards any workplace benefits you have in place.”


GRiD – cancer ‘most prevalent cause of claims’

Figures from Group Risk Development’s (GRiD’s) Claims Data Survey 2016 illustrate that cancer is the most prevalent cause for claims on employer-sponsored financial protection policies; Group Income Protection (GIP), Group Life Assurance (GLA) and Group Critical Illness (GCI).

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD says:

“With the incidence of cancer so prevalent, employers are in the perfect position to take significant steps towards helping staff to protect themselves and their families financially, should the worst occur.”

According to the charity Working With Cancer, there are over 600,000 people currently in employment and living with cancer but many others will have given up work as a result of their diagnosis. GIP, GLA and GCI offer an invaluable financial lifeline when employees and their dependants need it most, at diagnosis, during times of long-term illness and in the event of death. Providers are also frequently adding new levels of support and services to their policies (such as an Employee Assistance Programme, second medical opinion services and counselling) which can also significantly benefit employees who are living with cancer.

Moxham continued:

“Organisations employing someone with cancer must tread a fine line in supporting the individual, helping them return to work when they are ready, and ensuring business as usual. Offering staff some level of financial support via Group Risk products isn’t entirely altruistic: the individual will no doubt have fewer monetary concerns, the extra support on offer may help reduce their absence period and the employer is able to demonstrate their moral obligations towards staff.”

Compulsory eye screening can detect some cancers early

For any screen user or people who drive during the course of their employment, eye test provisions are compulsory anyway – but there are additional reasons to make sure your staff take up this benefit.

Specsavers Corporate Eyecare is keen to remind employers to encourage their staff to make the most of their eyecare benefits and have a regular eye test. Eye tests can detect cancers of the eye such as melanomas but probably not as well known is that they can also detect symptoms of brain cancers. Intercranial hypertension is not uncommon and can be a symptom of another condition such as a brain tumour and can be detected during an eye test. Importantly, this can be detected in the earliest stages before any symptoms are experienced.

Jim Lythgow, director of strategic alliances for Specsavers Corporate Eyecare said:

“Looking after the health and wellbeing of staff is becoming increasingly important to employers. And we’re seeing eyecare at work become integral to such strategies. Eyecare can do so much more than provide an eye test and glasses, and this value is felt keenly when symptoms of serious conditions are detected.”


Emotional & practical support at work

RedArc Nurses believes that the increasing rates for cancer survival requires a fresh approach from employers: practical and emotional support is vital in ensuring the individual, as well as the employer, have the best possible long term prognosis.

Christine Husbands, managing director for RedArc said:

“Due to earlier diagnoses and improved treatments, to quote the charity Macmillan, ‘cancer is not always life-ending but it is often life-changing’. Employers need to acknowledge this and provide better support services for staff. Financial payouts are obviously important but employers need to also offer a more rounded solution in parallel.”

Red Arc believes that many employers only offer financial support to employees via insurance products because they do not realise they can also access other support systems to help their employees and employees’ family – many of which are available directly or via an insurer.

As well as providing help in understanding a diagnosis, treatment and navigating the NHS, RedArc believes that employees also need help in finding

• suitable equipment and medical aids
• resources from factsheets and books to CDs and DVDs and accessing charities and self help groups
• practical help at home and in the workplace
• emotional support including dealing with relationship problems, adjusting to every day life a chronic condition, managing self esteem

Husbands continued:

“Often the most valuable thing for people diagnosed with cancer is having someone to talk to who is completely outside of their circle of friends, family, immediate medical team and employer. An ‘expert friend’, as users often describe these types of telemedical services, will help the individual and their family manage the emotional and physical side effects of the cancer diagnosis.

“Dealing with a diagnosis and the after effects of any illness can be traumatic for the individual and an ill-prepared employer make unintentionally make the situation worse for their member of staff. By taking a multi-faceted approach, employers can help support their employee financially, medically, emotional and practically and ensure that they are not only meeting but going beyond their duty of care for their most vulnerable employees.”


Returning to work – a phased approach

When the employee is able to return to work, (or indeed, if an employee chooses to stay at work through most of their treatment) employers should not expect ‘business as usual’.   Cancer is a life changing experience and employers are required to make reasonable adjustments.

After a prolonged period of absence due to cancer, it is important that employers conduct a return to work interview, ideally with an occupational health expert, and create a phased return to work plan.  Employers could initially consider:

  • reduced hours (part-time)
  • change the times of work (flexible working)
  • change duties (light duties)
  • additional rest breaks

There is no hard and fast rule, so allow the employee to dictate the pace and work closely with Occupational Health – and ideally train line managers in how best to support returners.  Ongoing support is essential.

Cancer is a life changing illness, and employers can either be the rock that helps employees through the process or a source of additional strain.  Supporting employees through the process, however, is easier and more affordable than it seems.


Author: Editorial Team

Share This Post On