Business steps up to help employees with cancer

As growing numbers of people are diagnosed with the disease, employers are starting to realise that they must do more to support staff through their treatment and beyond
Publicis Working With Cancer
Publicis is running an advertising campaign calling on companies to pledge to support staff working with cancer

Being told that you have cancer is, as the chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe puts it, “very tough to hear”. Arthur Sadoun went public with his diagnosis last year in a video outlining the surgery he’d undergone, the treatment he’d still need and the likely effects this would have on his job and the business.

Sadoun admits in the video that his decision to broadcast the news was “difficult”, partly because he knew it would be hard to talk about such a traumatic experience. 

Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer at the French advertising giant, is one of Sadoun’s closest colleagues. She recalls that, when he informed her of his diagnosis, he said he felt it was his duty to tell the whole company that he was being treated for cancer. Researching the subject afterwards, she found that most business leaders generally don’t go public until their treatment is over, but Sadoun was adamant that he should be more open.

It’s common for cancer patients to be concerned about making their condition known at work. Many worry about their job security should the rigours of treatment render them unable to work as normal. That is why, according to Publicis research, 50% of workers who receive a cancer diagnosis are afraid to tell their employer, while 71% are worried about informing their colleagues.

After Publicis released Sadoun’s video, it was “inundated” with messages from well-wishers inside and outside the company, according to Serrano. These included people who praised his bravery and said that they wished they could have done the same when they’d found themselves in a similar position. Concerns about job security had discouraged many of them from disclosing their illness, especially in countries where health insurance is often tied to employment. But it went beyond that.

She explains that many respondents to the research felt that the diagnosis “was the end of their career – no one would see them as an ambitious, driven person anymore. They feared that they’d be seen as weak or a disappointment.”

Many also thought that they’d need to seek another employer once their treatment was over, so that they could have a clean slate. “There was this real psychological trauma,” Serrano says.

Yet the study indicates that most cancer patients have a positive experience with their employer. All but 13% of respondents reported that their firms were accommodating, providing the support they needed, with just over half saying that they were offered unlimited sick leave or time off for treatment.

“What’s become clear”, Serrano says, “is that companies need to talk about the support they offer and make their policies more transparent.”

Making cancer support more visible

Simon Feldman agrees. A three-time cancer survivor who works in PR and is a coach, he knows the devastating impact a diagnosis can have all too well – and how important the support of an employer can be.

“Being diagnosed with cancer is an incredibly traumatic, stressful and fearful time,” Feldman says. “That’s why it’s imperative that businesses show empathy for employees with cancer, coupled with practical support. This includes time off for appointments; flexibility on working patterns if they’re not feeling well; and an awareness that their mental health may be affected too – including in the aftermath. Patience and, ultimately, kindness can make a huge difference.”

‘Being diagnosed with cancer is an incredibly traumatic, stressful and fearful time’

For Publicis, one of the key problems to address from the study is the misconception that a cancer patient’s employer and colleagues are likely to react poorly to being told of their condition. That has led the company to launch an initiative called the Working with Cancer Pledge.

Working in a group of like-minded organisations, including Macmillan Cancer Support, it‘s calling on other companies to pledge to support employees diagnosed with cancer through their treatment and beyond. Publicis itself has guaranteed cancer patients, and all employees with other serious illnesses and chronic diseases, job security for at least a year. 

“We really want to model from the top,” Serrano says. “But we also want to encourage smaller businesses to sign up. This is about achieving social change to normalise this issue so that the statistic [about the fear of telling your employer] goes down.”

Feldman agrees: “I’m fortunate to work for an employer with progressive policies to support its people. It would be great to see other companies looking at how they can step up when it counts.”

Returning to work after cancer

As Feldman highlighted earlier, people will still need assistance once their treatment has finished. Cancer Research UK estimates that half of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point, but survival rates are still rising, with half of patients predicted to live for at least 10 years after diagnosis.

That leaves many people dealing with the trauma of the illness even once they’re in remission. Mark Guymer, CEO of Cancer Support UK, believes that this ordeal can be even harder for people to handle than the impact of the diagnosis.

“When people are being treated, they enter survival mode – often they’re literally fighting for their lives. Once the treatment is complete, they start to process what they’ve been through,” he says.

Yet support at this stage – the very time that people are trying to get their lives back – is often lacking. A study by the charity has concluded that 55% of patients returning to work need better support. This is even more so among those with complex and/or terminal cancers, according to research by the Institute for Employment Studies.

Having identified this problem, Cancer Support UK started a service to train workplace cancer support ambassadors last year. One of the biggest companies to have signed up is confectionery firm Mondelēz, which has trained more than 100 ambassadors.

“Organisations have a legal obligation to support people who’ve been affected by cancer, but that doesn’t include providing support for their emotional needs when they return to work,” Guymer says. “You might think that they’re getting post-treatment support from friends and family, but often they don’t want to burden their loved ones again by saying they still don’t feel that great and need more help. That’s where businesses can step up.”

Guymer believes that providing such help offers genuine benefits to the employer as well as the person receiving it. 

“There’s a real onus on organisations, when thinking about their employer brand, to consider how it gives employees the support they need so that they remain loyal. These types of programmes help. It’s a real win-win situation,” he stresses.

The theme of this year’s World Cancer Day is “close the care gap”. Employers clearly have a key part to play in this effort – by both helping patients to feel reassured throughout their treatment and easing their progress towards normality afterwards.