Cancer in the workplace: how early intervention can help

Cancer in the workplace

Cancer is one of the major health risks facing employers at the moment. Stephen Hackett, head of health and risk at Aon Employee Benefits, asks what employers can do to support the 560,000 people living with cancer in the workforce today.

How does cancer affect the teams around the person with the condition, for example in relation to hiring replacements or productivity? What about the 35 million days lost due to musculoskeletal problems annually or the fact that one in three employees will feel debilitating stress in the next one to two years? These are among the topics of a seminar in London this week.

As the cost of providing health-related benefits continues to rise, creative e-broking alone is no longer sufficient to keep the costs down. Employers need to take a proactive approach, looking at the root causes of the cost increases and find ways to make long-term, sustainable improvements to employee health.

With more than 100,000 people of working age being diagnosed with cancer every year, there are few employers who are not touched by it, whether it is their employees directly or their employees’ family members.

As cancer incidence reaches a record high, the Department of Health has asked for the support of employers in the early detection of cancers in its national plan, “Improving outcomes”. Research shows that the early detection of cancer can lead to better treatment outcomes, higher cure rates, improved survival and can make a direct and positive difference to employees’ lives. Early detection and cancer screening services can also impact directly on an employer’s bottom line by reducing absence, getting affected employees back to work more quickly and lowering private medical insurance and income protection costs.

A recent report from Cancer Research UK revealed that 46% of cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully, and that early diagnosis of all cancers could relieve a huge cost burden for the UK.

According to the research, the overall saving could be as great as £210 million, while helping to improve the survival prospects for more than 52,000 patients. These potential benefits and savings are even larger when the expected growth in the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer over the next 15 years is taken into account.

“Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the very different outcomes we see with two of the most common cancers – breast and lung cancer,” explains Gordon Wishart, professor of cancer surgery and medical director at cancer screening specialist HealthScreen UK, which will be speaking at seminar this week on managing cancer in the workplace.

“Although breast cancer is increasing, the mortality rate has actually been falling since the 1980s,” says Whishart. “We are doing well in terms of early diagnosis and treatment, not just because specialist screening is available but because of better education and awareness.”

By contrast, survival rates for lung cancer are very poor and early detection (or rather the lack of it) is the fundamental issue. The absence of a national screening programme for lung cancer means that 90% of cases come to light as a result of symptoms, by which time it is often too late for surgery or other curative treatments. Yet, if lung cancer could be picked up as early as breast cancer, there is no reason why a similar survival rate could not be achieved.

There is also a major cost issue here. The Cancer Research UK report, for example, found that treating colon cancer at its earliest stage costs £3,373 compared with £12,519 when treated at its latest stage, evidence that taking proactive steps to encourage early detection can also pay off.

Employers can take positive action to increase awareness of cancer in the workplace, educating employees on managing risk factors and spotting symptoms and initiating early screening programmes within the workplace. These can operate at a number of levels from awareness and knowledge-based campaigns via dedicated seminars, websites, posters and information brochures through to a full-scale company-wide cancer screening programme.

Hewlett Packard, for example, has run workplace-based screening programmes for four of the most common cancers: breast, prostate, skin and lung cancer. In each of these campaigns, anomalies were detected that otherwise may only have been picked up much later or not at all, ultimately having life-changing consequences for the effected employees. Mark Osborn, HP’s Total Reward Manager will be discussing HPs cancer awareness and detection strategy at the seminar.

The breakfast seminar, Managing cancer in the workplace, takes place on Thursday 16 October at Home House, 20 Portman Square, London. The panel of speakers includes Embarrassing Bodies’ Dr Pixie McKenna and Professor Gordon Wishart, along with speakers from Hewlett Packard and Lend Lease who will talk about the approach they have taken in supporting cancer awareness and screening in their organisations.

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