Gordon Wishart: Everyone benefits from cancer support in the workplace


The number of workers coping with cancer while carrying out their jobs is increasing. Employers need clear strategies for dealing with the issue, says Professor Gordon Wishart, chief medical officer at Check4Cancer

Cancer is a problem that cannot be ignored. 2016 has seen a succession of cultural figures succumb to the disease – including David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne – but the year between the first of our reports and the second also brought a string of announcements about leading business figures diagnosed with cancer, including CEOs at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Smith & Nephew.

When a CEO has cancer there can be serious implications for the stability of an organisation but this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact cancer is having in the workplace. Figures released by Cancer Research UK show a 12 per cent increase in the rate of cancer since the mid-1990s, with more than 352,000 people in the UK diagnosed with cancer each year. Of these, over 100,000 are of working age, and estimates suggest that, in total, more than 750,000 people of working age are living with a cancer diagnosis. According to health insurance company Unum, cancer is the biggest cause of long-term sickness claims in the UK, accounting for almost a third in 2015.

The good news is that more than half of patients survive for at least 10 years following a cancer diagnosis. However, this does not necessarily make things easier for employers. As cancer becomes more of a chronic illness, longer-term treatment is often required, with appropriate support from employers as part of their duty of care. So, do firms have policies and processes in place to demonstrate the necessary support for their employees and minimise disruption and costs?

In February this year, Check4Cancer commissioned research from an independent survey firm into cancer in the workplace: what employers were doing in response to the cancer epidemic, their attitudes and plans. The results, from 500 key HR professionals in the UK, were very revealing.

A central finding was the lack of planning among organisations to manage the risks relating to cancer. Seventy-one per cent of the HR managers surveyed said they lacked policies for communication with and management of employees with a cancer diagnosis – a figure that rose to 89 per cent among small firms. When it came to cancer ‘survivors’ returning to work, 61 per cent of HR managers admitted to lacking policies.

Nearly half of HR managers also thought line managers in their organisation were unprepared for managing employees with cancer, with 13 per cent saying they did not think they were prepared ‘at all’. The figures were even higher in large organisations (those with more than 10,000 employees), with 53 per cent believing managers were unprepared.

The results pose questions about the extent to which employers are relying on managers to think on their feet, treating cancer diagnoses as just another people management issue. Of those polled, 71 per cent said their organisation did not provide any information on cancer awareness, nor offer early detection of cancer through screening as a health benefit. The research also found that 44 per cent did not offer cancer services and did not plan to in future, while 45 per cent did not offer any kind of health screening.

However, some forward-looking employers are responding to the cancer threat with new and adapted employee benefits. The research found that 34 per cent of HR managers had introduced free counselling specifically to address cases of cancer, 25 per cent had brought in extended, non-statutory leave and 20 per cent offered family support services relating to cancer. It also found that 27 per cent believed their organisation was in the planning stages of introducing cancer screening.

Many of these measures are quite new – on average, such offerings have been made only since 2012/13. However, by building a proactive strategy for dealing with cancer, these businesses are not only securing a more stable future but potentially saving thousands of lives.

The message to take from this is simple: as with the disease itself, ignoring the problem is the worst possible course and those that act early will have the best long-term prognosis – both for their employees and for their business as a whole.