Supporting employees who have had a cancer diagnosis through their ‘journey’ from treatment to return to work can be challenging. For occupational health practitioners, identifying knowledge gaps and offering practical and emotional reassurance and support at every stage need to be key, writes Hasna Haidar.
Taking a holistic approach to employee health and wellbeing can be the key to helping businesses thrive. After all, a workforce that’s well looked after will always be more motivated, productive and valuable than one that’s neglected.
An important part of providing proper support for a worker’s physical and mental wellbeing is being aware of and prepared for all the concerns they might have – as well as the health concerns they may not even know about.
A general lack of cancer awareness
From an occupational health perspective, an informed worker is an empowered one. Early intervention can make all the difference when it comes to a range of common medical conditions.
The more informed a worker is, the more likely they are to spot symptoms early and identify the need to see their doctor. Unfortunately, a survey by medical negligence solicitors Bolt Burdon Kemp found a worrying lack of general knowledge about cancer.
It concluded that 88% of the British public are unable to identify symptoms linked to cancer, with only 12% of respondents being able to identify symptoms of cancer confidently and correctly.
The research also found that there’s a gender difference when it comes to knowledge about cancer, with women being generally more knowledgeable about reproductive cancers than men. While three in five women (59%) said they don’t know anything about either prostate cancer or cervical cancer, a whopping four out of five (77%) men said the same.
A lack of body awareness, too
Cancer and work
The survey also found that, on average, six in 10 people in Britain (59%) can’t identify the body parts associated with major cancers. More than half (57%) of the British public don’t know where the large intestines are, which is problematic considering bowel cancer (or colorectal cancer) is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK.
With almost eight in 10 respondents (78%) unable to locate the prostate and more than seven out of 10 (74%) unable to locate the liver, it’s clear more needs to be done to educate workers in order to provide holistic support.
How occupational health can help with early diagnosis
Of course, the first action for occupational health professionals when it comes to dealing with the potential of cancer in the workplace is ensuring working practices are designed to reduce or remove cancer risk.
With certain types of work carrying higher cancer risks than others, we’d need to ensure there are processes in place to deal with problems such as asbestos, pesticides and herbicides, silica, sun exposure and more. And, if a worker has suspected occupational cancer, protecting them and others from further exposure is paramount.
As the Bolt Burden Kemp survey suggests, another valuable action could be ensuring workers are aware of common occupational risks as well as the early signs and symptoms of cancer.
Keeping information packs easily digestible, jargon-free and available in a location where employees can access the information discreetly can help remove any potential access barriers.”
While a robust health surveillance programme can help here, providing education and training is also important. We need to arm workers with the necessary knowledge to help catch cancer as early as possible, as well as empower them with the questions they should be asking their doctor, and what they should be looking out for.
Keeping information packs easily digestible, jargon-free and available in a location where employees can access the information discreetly can help remove any potential access barriers.
How occupational health can help during treatment
If an employee does receive a cancer diagnosis, support from their workplace can be invaluable in helping them move through the treatment stages without feeling too overwhelmed. From reducing their workload and making adjustments to their workspace, to providing easy-to-understand information about things like Statutory Sick Pay could help reduce stress.
While support for the worker is important, occupational health will need to assess the situation from a business perspective, too. Practitioners may need to consider the worker’s fitness for employment during treatment, as well their fitness for returning to work after sickness – and consider whether cover needs to be arranged.
Practitioners may also want to consider the health and safety or performance of their co-workers, and provide emotional support where needed while maintaining confidentiality.
How occupational health can help during recovery
Once workers make it through their cancer treatment, OH will be criticial in terms of providing tailored support to help employees transition back to work, if they wish to do so.
Key considerations at this stage could include ensuring a properly paced return-to-work plan so that the worker is not overwhelmed, listening to and discussing their health concerns in confidence, seeking help from a medical practitioner if needed, and providing flexible working options that allow them to feel supported and productive.
Practitioners also need to make sure employees feel safe to return to work – particularly if the cancer was occupational in nature.
Occupational health’s role in employee health and wellbeing needn’t be restricted to purely functional and procedural actions.
By taking a proactive and holistic approach to employee’s health – and pre-emptively identifying knowledge gaps and taking steps to bridge them – occupational health is well-placed to ensure a happier and healthier workforce that has every opportunity to thrive.