Supporting workers with cancer is an urgent task for leaders

Breast Cancer Awareness month is a good moment for business leaders to ask whether they’re doing enough to help those within their workforce who are navigating cancer, says Kelly McCabe, co-founder and CEO of Perci Health

Diverse women of all ages attend breast cancer awareness charity event together to raise money for cure

Pink isn’t usually a colour associated with autumn, but you’d be hard pressed not to spot a pink ribbon this October. It is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness month. 

Of all the cancer awareness months (March – ovarian; April – bowel; September – blood, and so on), Breast Cancer Awareness month is by far the most visible. And it’s easy to understand why: breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 15% of cases

Awareness months shine an important spotlight on key health issues affecting the workforce. Yet beyond fundraising, education and advocacy lies a more urgent task, for leaders especially: the creation of policies and strategies that meaningfully support employees affected not just by breast cancer, but by all cancers. 

I say ‘urgent’ because the stakes for employers and employees alike are already high and getting higher all the time. 

How can employers help in the fight against cancer?

One in two people will now receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes, and close to half will be of working age. As screening catches the disease earlier and advances in treatment increase rates of recovery, the number of people living beyond cancer is growing fast. So fast that by 2030, the figure is expected to be double what it was in 2010

The need for employers to actively support those affected by cancer is pressing. Campaigns such as Working with Cancer, launched by Publicis after CEO Arthur Sadoun was diagnosed, are helping companies ‘provide a more open, supportive and recovery-forward culture’. 

But what do those cultures look like? And, crucially, how are they created? Before we begin to answer those questions, we need to be clear about why they’re needed. And, to do this, we need to understand the care gap. 

Why bridging the care gap matters

In recent research we conducted with more than 500 UK employers about their experiences of cancer in the workplace, 68% said they’ve noticed a care gap around cancer recovery and rehabilitation. A further 70% have noticed a gap around return-to-work support. 

The side effects from cancer treatment can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, can continue for years after treatment ends. These can include fatigue, changes to physical appearance, pain and neuromusculoskeletal disorders. Those living beyond cancer are also at greater risk of anxiety, depression and PTSD, and may experience challenges with their relationships and finances. Whether physical, psychological or practical, these side effects are all barriers to transitioning back to work, and working productively when they have returned. 

Cancer produces a £7.6bn loss of productivity per year in the UK alone

With the care gap as it stands, and with the workplace cancer cohort increasing, employers are managing increased rates of sickness absence, as well as missing skills. Research by Demos in 2020 estimated that cancer produces a £7.6bn loss of productivity per year in the UK alone. 

How to create a cancer-positive culture

The evidence in favour of cancer-positive cultures is compelling. Four in five people who accessed vocational rehabilitation support for cancer have stayed in work or returned to work, and Publicis research has found that 92% of cancer patients believe the support they get at work positively affects their health. 

Of course, as with other organisational wellbeing and financial challenges, there’s no silver bullet. Success requires the creation and cultivation of an ecosystem in which employees are educated, and shielded from risk, throughout diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. 

At the most basic level, strategies can and should include time off to attend screening appointments, as well as education around cancer referral pathways and the healthcare system. A robust cancer policy is also a must. More proactive employers are offering anything from virtual GP appointments to a multidisciplinary team to help employees manage side effects, as well as specialist vocational rehabilitation. Those caring for someone with cancer – a vulnerable and often overlooked group – also require specialist support. 

What does supportive leadership look like for cancer?

A question I often get asked is, ‘What can leaders do to support their cancer cohort today?’ 

Well, the hardest thing to do is often the simplest; if you or someone you love is being affected by cancer, talk about it. This signals to others that it’s safe for them to do the same, and you can begin to identify those who need support. Next, signpost existing workplace policies and legislation affecting those going through cancer. Again, watch for who comes forward. And finally, train managers to have sensitive conversations with team members who find themselves at any stage on the cancer continuum. 

And stay positive. Yes, cancer is more prevalent than ever and it’s undoubtedly expensive. But digital healthcare providers are already revolutionising this space, and helping employers to support their staff. 

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with cancer or you’re responsible for supporting the condition across your workforce, I can say with confidence that the outlook has never been so promising. 

Kelly McCabe is the founder and CEO of Perci Health, a virtual care clinic focused on the long-term health and wellbeing needs of people living with cancer.