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Businesses need support to help their employees with cancer get back to work

Tyna Taskila

30 November 2012

Recent improvements in the treatment and early diagnosis of cancer has resulted in an increasing number of survivors remaining in work. A report published on 28 November, Can Work, Will Work, by Oxford Economics in collaboration with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and Unum, reveals there are more than 560,000 people with cancer in the workforce today contributing over £16 billion to the UK economy every year - more than the country’s house building industry.  As prevalence and survival rates are continuing to rise this will grow to more than 1.1 million people by 2030,  making a significant contribution of £29 billion every year. Despite many cancer survivors’ desire to get back to work, the workforce is losing as many as 63,000 people living with cancer because of barriers which prevent them from returning to or remaining in work.

Cancer is currently costing companies £1.1 billion each year in lost productivity and £1.2 billion in costs of absence management, as well as the added expense of recruiting  and training replacement staff. The barriers to work for people living with cancer are a complex interplay of organisational culture, a worker’s fear of returning to a difficult work environment, and a healthcare system which favours rest over activity. It is evident that support from workplaces, especially from line managers, is crucial for helping people with cancer to maintain employment.  We know that employers are willing to support their employees diagnosed with cancer, but often they do not know how as appropriate support for employers is lacking. 

The Can Work, Will Work research shows this support does not need to be costly or complicated. Past research has shown that even regular contact between people with cancer and their line-managers, or colleagues, during treatment can have a positive impact. It is clear that employers need proper training and information on return to work processes and support practices for people with chronic conditions, including cancer. There is strong evidence that the longer the sick leave, the less likely it is for an individual to return to work. And research shows that workplace accommodations, such as flexible work hours, can help people with cancer return to work more quickly.

The new sickness absence law (currently under review) will hopefully give more flexibility to people with cancer who want to return to work, or continue working during their treatment.  This would help businesses to better support employees with fluctuating conditions, such as cancer. The availability of additional support  would not only reduce the cost of absences, but it would - crucially - improve the quality of life for cancer survivors.