Coping with cancer in the workplace – Anna Spender

Helping workers cope when cancer strikes is a great way for employers to show their staff how much they care about them, says Friends Life head of group protection proposition Anna Spender


Cancer is never far from the news. Rarely does a day go by without a headline appearing somewhere about the disease, be it positive or negative. 

The most memorable headline of recent weeks was “Half of UK people will get cancer”. Not the most cheerful of messages to receive while eating your breakfast.

But that is the reality and we must face up to it. The chances are that either I, writing this, or you, reading it, will be diagnosed with cancer at some point over our lifetime. 

If we are lucky enough to avoid it, there is no doubt that someone close to us will be diagnosed with it. It could be a family member or a friend, or it could be someone we work with. The sooner we all accept this, the better prepared we can be.

Despite the increasingly alarming statistics, a huge number of people continue not to make any financial provision to cover themselves in the event of long-term illness. 

Only 23 per cent of people in the UK have life insurance and even fewer have critical illness cover or income protection. They may have the mind-set of “It won’t happen to me” or they may underestimate the potential impact on their life if a long-term illness were to afflict them.

This could be the point at which employers can step in. 

With the increase in the number of people predicted to develop cancer, plus an ageing workforce, it is logical that we will encounter more people in our workplace who have been diagnosed with the disease. 

In fact, recent research suggests there are one million people of working age living with cancer in the UK. 

A diagnosis affects all aspects of a person’s life: physically, from both the disease itself and the potential side-effects of treatment; financially; and mentally. 

Employers can help protect and support staff diagnosed with cancer, bringing obvious benefits for the employee – such as a financial safety net – while also helping the employer in attracting and retaining staff.  

As well as having a potentially devastating impact on the individual concerned and their family, cancer can severely disrupt a business. A cancer patient may need weeks, months or even longer away from work in order to receive treatment and recover properly. 

To have a member of staff absent for so long could be damaging to a company. I believe the phrase is something like “A business is only as good as the people it employs”. 

These may be people with many years of experience, who have knowledge that cannot easily be taught, who are able to make sound and important decisions quickly – all of which are attributes that most companies cannot afford to lose.

That is why workplace benefit packages have evolved over recent years. The lump-sum payout on diagnosis continues to help with the financial costs of becoming ill – Macmillan Cancer Support says four in five people diagnosed with cancer are on average £570 a month worse off because of their illness – but many protection policies now offer support services too. 

Around 70 per cent of all group protection critical illness claims are for cancer and an employee who develops the illness and claims through a workplace policy is likely to have a host of options. These can range from second-opinion services and counselling to rehabilitation programmes that prepare them for life back at work. 

This is where employers can really feel the benefit of such schemes. They can stay in contact with their employee while they receive cancer treatment and develop a plan to get them back into the workplace at a pace tailored to the individual.

I mentioned earlier that sometimes we read positive headlines around cancer. A couple caught the eye last year:  “Cancer survival rates continue to improve” and “Half of cancer sufferers live for a decade or more”. 

This is clearly great news. More and more people are beating cancer and, in many cases, can return to the life they had pre-diagnosis. 

But that can bring new challenges. The mortgage will still need paying and the bills will keep coming, but four in 10 people who had been working when diagnosed with cancer say they had to make changes to their working life after treatment. 

However, with support from the employer – both financial and in a rehabilitation capacity – these changes can be managed and employees can obtain invaluable help when they need it most.