How can employers improve support to staff with cancer?


Even the best-intentioned employers and managers can struggle to support an employee with a cancer diagnosis. Cheryl Brennan outlines some practical approaches that can help.

It was World Cancer Day in February, an event that explores how everyone can play in a part to reduce the global burden of cancer. According to Macmillan Cancer Support one in three (or 750,000) of the two million people currently living with cancer in the UK are of working age. This figure is set to rise to 1.7 million by 2030.

Having a cancer diagnosis is devastating and, when it happens, probably the last thing on a person’s mind is work. While not everyone will be able to work following a cancer diagnosis, for others work can be essential, offering a chance for them to retain a sense of normality.

About the author

Cheryl Brennan is director of corporate risk at Punter Southall Health & Protection

Macmillan also suggests that up to 85% of people with cancer say it is important to work. The benefits are not only financial and social; there is evidence that work has a positive impact on people’s health and recovery.

However, it is important that people are given proper support at work. Macmillan, for one, says that often it is the absence of good support that prevents someone returning to work after or during treatment, rather than the effects of the illness or treatment.

What does ‘good’ support look like?

For many employers, it can be difficult to know how to provide the correct support, especially if they haven’t had to do so before. They can feel out of their depth and unsure of the best approach. Some employers may not realise they have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for employees with cancer under equalities legislationi.

Cancer is a very emotive subject and a topic many find difficult to discuss. Even if policies are in place, it can be hard for employers to apply them rigidly. For this reason, many continue to pay employees on a discretionary basis despite what their sick pay policy might say. So, often there is a financial burden for employers too.

It is only natural for employers to want to show empathy and concern; however, an employee is more likely to be looking for practical advice and support. Employers therefore have a responsibility to support any employees diagnosed with cancer and ensure they are treated fairly and appropriately.

Taking a more holistic approach

Traditionally employers would have approach cancer care by reviewing their PMI plans to ensure they provided the best possible treatments for employees should cancer occur.

However, today there is greater recognition that the impacts of cancer are more wide reaching. Employers understand that a diagnosis won’t just affect a person’s health, but their finances and their family life. Consequently, many now support individuals according to their individual needs on a discretionary basis. They realise that cancer affects people differently and they are more flexible about the support and benefits they provide.

Below are some practical ways that employers can support employees dealing with a cancer diagnosis:

Review healthcare and protection benefits. The first thing employers should do is check if existing healthcare and protection benefits offer employees adequate support to enable them to remain in the workplace throughout their treatment or return to work after a period? Or do the benefits need an overhaul?

It is important that companies have established strategies and policies for managing employees with cancer and check regularly they are fit for purpose and provide the best support possible.

Take a more flexible approach. Cancer affects people differently, so being flexible is vital. Employers may, for example, offer employees private GP services to ensure cancer can be diagnosed quickly. This gives them the best opportunity for early treatments, which may also enable them to remain in work.

Employers may choose to provide access to alternative treatments or change the critical illness policy to ensure it will not only pay out a lump sum but also offer a cancer triage service to provide counselling support and emotional care. Employers could also offer greater flexibility in terms of working hours and schedules.

Provide solid support services. On a practical level, it can make an enormous difference if line managers are trained and equipped to handle difficult and sensitive conversations with team members. They also should understand and be able to communicate the healthcare benefits their company offers so they can signpost employees to relevant support services and information about treatment and their working options.

Equally, there may need to be support services such as counselling available for employees who may be emotionally affected by their colleague’s illness.

To truly support employees with cancer, employers will need to consider all these elements when reviewing their employee benefit strategies.

With cancer rates (but also survival rates) continuing to rise, it is important companies check their policies and support to ensure they are as good as they can be. If they find them lacking, then calendar moments, whether World Cancer Day or, say, Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the autumn, can be a great reminder of the need to improve them as well as a way of kickstarting the relevant conversations required.

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