OH has a pivotal role to play in supporting employees through cancer

One in three people living with cancer are of working age, yet managers and employers often feel ill-equipped when it comes to supporting employees to stay in and return to work following a cancer diagnosis. Good occupational health advice and support can make all the difference, argues Rebecca Coaker.

An estimated one in three people (890,000) living with cancer in the UK are of working age. With numbers predicted to increase, it is more vital than ever that employers understand how to support employees through a cancer diagnosis.

At Macmillan Cancer Support, we have found that almost one in four (22%) line managers have managed someone with cancer in their current or previous roles. Yet, despite this, the majority (86%) of line managers have never received training on supporting people with long-term conditions (including cancer), and only a third (36%) feel equipped to support employees with the disease.

About the author

Rebecca Coaker is services influencing manager – Work and Cancer – at Macmillan Cancer Support

Evidence shows that targeted health support in the workplace can prevent people falling out of work because of ill health. While there are legal reasons for supporting employees with cancer, including the legislation under the 2010 Equality Act that protects the rights of people with cancer at work, there are also wider benefits to doing so.

Supporting staff through illness fosters wellbeing and morale in the workplace and can prevent people living with cancer from becoming isolated. Retaining talented and knowledgeable staff can also help maintain institutional knowledge and expertise while also reducing costs associated with recruitment and training.

Role of occupational health

For the 87% of people employed when diagnosed with cancer who say it is important to continue working after their diagnosis, occupational health can play a significant role in supporting them.

Where available, it can help employees understand the impact their cancer might have on their working lives as well as manage any subsequent fears they might have about their health and work.

Occupational health can also help employees to successfully negotiate changes to their working life as well as pre-empt work-related difficulties by providing advice on how workplaces could be adapted to meet an employee’s needs.

To provide effective support, occupational health professionals need to know when an employee has been diagnosed with cancer, this is where timely and appropriate referral from employers is important.

Occupational health professionals also need a good understanding of the impact that cancer can have on employees and their ability to work. This impact can vary depending on the individual, the type of cancer they have and how it is being treated as well as where they are in their cancer experience.

Macmillan-funded research, however, found that 48% of occupational health doctors had concerns that their training did not address their knowledge needs to advise employees with cancer.

To support occupational health professionals, line managers and HR professionals, Macmillan set up Macmillan at Work. This programme provides information, guidance and training to help them support people affected by cancer in the workplace. Since then, over 10,000 have signed-up to the scheme and over 5,000 have received training.

By investing in the up-skilling of key staff to manage people with cancer at work, being prepared to make reasonable adjustments and recognising the importance of good communication, employers can work with occupational health professionals to help support staff with cancer appropriately.

More information about Macmillan at Work, including how to sign-up for a free work and cancer toolkit, is available at www.macmillan.org.uk/atwork.

Macmillan also works together with healthcare professionals to offer opportunities to develop and learn so they can keep providing the best treatment and support. For more information, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/patientsupport.

The 890,000 figure is the estimated total prevalence of cancer among people in the UK aged 16 to 65. Based on UK complete prevalence of those aged 0 to 64 in 2010 and 2015 derived from Maddams J, Utley M, Møller H. Projections of cancer prevalence in the United Kingdom, 2010–2040. Br J Cancer 2012; 107: 1195–1202. (Projections scenario 1). 

It was adjusted up to those aged 16 to 65 based on proportions in 21-year cancer prevalence in England (Transforming Cancer Services Team for London, NHS, National Cancer Registry and Analysis Service, PHE and Macmillan Cancer Support. 2017. Cancer Prevalence in England: 21-year prevalence by demographic and geographic measures.

It should also be noted the 890,000 figure is higher than the numbers in the cancer Prevalence in England projections as this figure covers the whole of the UK rather than just England. It is also based on people alive in 2015 with a cancer diagnosis any time in the past rather than those alive in 2015 with a cancer diagnosis in the last 21 years.

Amir Z, Wynn P, Whitaker S, Luker K (2009). Cancer survivorship and return to work: UK occupational physician experience. Occupational Medicine. London, available online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23654889_Cancer_survivorship_and_return_to_work_UK_occupational_physician_experience

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