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World Cancer Day: how employers can reduce stigma and support colleagues with cancer

02 February 2023

As we approach World Cancer Day on 4 February 2023, this article looks at the impact of cancer in the workplace and what employers can do to support their employees.

The statistics on cancer are hard hitting. Cancer Research UK forecasts that one in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Diagnosis rates continue to increase due to better screening, longer life expectancy and changing demographics or risk factors (e.g. obesity). The reality is that cancer will touch the lives of many of your colleagues - whether as a patient, partner, family member or friend. The good news is that with improved research and treatment options survival rates are increasing and death rates falling. While this is encouraging, it doesn’t take away the fact that a cancer diagnosis will be a huge shock, and being a cancer patient is a fearful and isolating place to be.

Working with cancer

As many people with cancer are of working age and in work, employers have a crucial role to play in reducing the stigma around cancer in the workplace. Current research shows that 50% of people with cancer are afraid to even tell their employers about their diagnosis.

For many people, staying in or returning to work following a cancer diagnosis or treatment is central to helping them regain a sense of normality, confidence and financial independence. Work often forms an important part of someone’s identity, which can lead to increased self-esteem, mental wellbeing, and social inclusion.

It’s highly likely that most HR professionals and managers will face situations in which colleagues undergo cancer treatment during their career. Treatment is increasingly personalised and prolonged, and will impact different people in different ways. The side effects, including psychological impacts and fatigue, can persist long after treatment is complete. For managers, knowledge of the condition, treatments and the potential side effects, including their impact on work, is crucial.

Cancer can affect people at any time of life, but the incidence rate does increase significantly with age. As employers try to attract and retain older workers in order to address the continuing skills shortage, supportive workplace policies around cancer could form part of an “over 50s friendly” benefits package, tied into wider health care benefits and wellbeing initiatives (see our article on how employers can make their workplaces appeal to older workers).

Reduce the stigma and support colleagues impacted by cancer

On 17 January 2023, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, more than 30 global organisations launched a cross-industry initiative “Working with Cancer”, pledging to support employees impacted by cancer and to reduce the stigma of cancer in the workplace.

This is very welcome news. Employees diagnosed with cancer will be going through the most, or one of the most, difficult periods in their lives. So, what can employers do to support their employees?

  • Train people managers. Line managers are often the employee’s first point of contact and responsible for day-to day management. Unfortunately, research conducted by research conducted by CIPD shows that 50% of HR professionals thought line managers lacked the knowledge and confidence to manage people with long-term health conditions, and almost 40% reported challenges in supporting managers to develop an understanding about making reasonable adjustments. Managers need to understand the likely effects of cancer, its treatments, the impact on work and how to handle difficult and sensitive conversations with compassion. They need to be able to signpost employees to any benefits, support services and information on their working options. Every person has a different cancer experience so managers should take time to understand employees’ individual needs.
  • Be flexible. There will undoubtedly be many hospital appointments, tests, scans and treatments that the employee will need to attend - so taking a flexible approach and supporting them with their workload will relieve a huge amount of pressure. Under the Equality Act 2010, cancer is deemed to be a disability, meaning that employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to the role and/or workplace. This could include allowing time off, working flexible hours, changes to the role, remote working or organising a phased return to work. It is important to remember that for the majority of people the need for these changes is likely to be temporary rather than permanent.
  • Respect carers’ rights. If an employee is caring for someone who has cancer, they may need additional support. Carers have certain rights at work, including taking unpaid time off to care for a loved one in an emergency, and protection from discrimination because they associate with someone who has a disability. The government is also due to introduce a week’s carer’s leave in the near future (for more information see our recent article on government-backed Private Members’ Bills). Flexible working arrangements could also make it easier for carers to keep working, so it is helpful to make carers aware of the right to request flexible working even if it is for a short, defined period.
  • Implement a cancer policy. A policy can provide clear guidance and support around diagnosis, sickness absence, adjustments, working during treatment, managing long term conditions and mental wellbeing. Having a policy in place can also assist with reducing the stigma of a cancer diagnosis and can encourage colleagues to be open. It will also help employees understand the support that is available to them.
  • Open up dialogue. Improve cancer awareness and create spaces for employees to share experiences about how they’ve been impacted by cancer. Cancer can be associated with a huge taboo, especially across different cultures. Arranging open conversations, perhaps on World Cancer Day or by hosting a Macmillan Coffee Morning, can provide an avenue to help reduce that stigma.

Creating open, inclusive and supportive workplaces with compassionate people management practices can make all the difference to help someone with cancer manage their condition, as well as those caring for loved ones. Cancer will affect most of us either directly or indirectly, and it doesn’t mean those affected are unable to be valuable members of the workforce. An understanding and flexible employer can help employees to feel less overwhelmed, reduce anxieties and give everyone the confidence to cope with cancer in the workplace.

If you would like to have a conversation about how to support colleagues with cancer or other long term health conditions, please contact the Lewis Silkin training team.

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