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Right type of support is key for supporting people with cancer in the workplace

Dr Tyna Taskila

04 February 2013

World Cancer Day aims to raise awareness about the reality of living with cancer. The perception that cancer is a death sentence still widely exists, however, thanks to early detection and better treatment, cancer has increasingly become a chronic illness. Changing the image of cancer and breaking down myths related to cancer are key factors in the success.

In the UK, there are over 2 million people living with cancer today, of which over 700,000 are of working age. Research shows that many cancer survivors wish to return to work after treatment and that  the majority are able to do so. Unfortunately research has also shown that many struggle to stay in work due to continuing health problems. People with cancer are twice as likely as people without cancer to leave work life early. There is strong research evidence that cancer survivors are in a higher risk of unemployment, mainly due to increased risk of disability.

Keeping people with cancer in work is important not only for cancer survivors themselves but also for the economy. It has been estimated that employed cancer survivors are contributing over £16 billion to the UK economy every year, which is more than the UK house building industry. In contrast, people with cancer on sick leave are costing firms £1.1 billion in lost of productivity and £1.2 billion in hard costs, including costs of absence management, recruitment and training new staff (see my previous blog). With such impressive figures, it is quite surprising that so little has been done to help people with cancer and other chronic conditions to remain in work life.

A lack of support from health care professionals and employers as well as a negative work environment clearly play a role in job retention. Other key issues for people with cancer are limited access to vocational rehabilitation services, and also the fact that the right type of services do not exist for people with such a complex illness.

To address the lack of specialist support vocational rehabilitation services in the UK, Macmillan, as part of the National Cancer Survivorship Initiative, piloted a model in several sites across England and three different levels of work support were identified; the first level consisting all patients who are in work to be asked about their employment situation, the second level of support is for people with specific concerns or worries about the impact of cancer on their work and the third level is targeted at people with complex needs who would be referred to a specialised vocational rehabilitation service. 

At The Work Foundation, together with MacMillan Cancer Support, we are organising an event which outlines how to best to support people with cancer to return and remain in work. Our event is one of the many important steps towards development of vocational rehabilitation services for people with cancer. We are looking forward to launching the latest findings by Macmillan on 15 March 2013.