Supporting employees with cancer

Business Insights

More than a quarter of employees with cancer do not tell their colleagues about their diagnosis, new research by Reframe Cancer has found. Yet, it’s estimated that there are over 890,000 working-aged people (16 to 65) are living with cancer in the UK, and this number is set to rise to 1,150,000 by 2030.

It’s really important that organisations are able to have conversations with their teams about cancer and other longer term health conditions and can support them to overcome any discomfort they may feel. Raising awareness, encouraging an open culture and making sure employees know it’s ok to have time off for an appointment or screening is a good place to start.

Here, Sarah White, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics outlines below some advice on how to have these conversations and ways in which organisations can support their people with cancer:

Be respectful

It’s important to keep conversations open, sensitive and respectful. Try to be understanding when you communicate and remember to listen. Some people might like to bring a friend or family member with them to provide emotional support during certain conversations.

Be willing to learn

If you don’t know much about a type of cancer, its treatment or side-effects, look it up. However, do bear in mind, that depending on the subset of the cancer, treatments may vary, and that not all sources will be fully up to date with current treatment options. If they don’t mind, ask your employee to explain how the cancer or its treatment might affect them. It’s important to remember that cancer treatments can affect people differently. You should also bear in mind that they might not yet be sure how it will affect them. Additionally, it is not your employee’s responsibility to educate you about their cancer or circumstances, you may need to seek this out elsewhere.

Be discreet

Some people with cancer may not want their colleagues to know. And, even if they do, it’s important to discuss how their colleagues are told. Some people would rather tell people themselves, while others would prefer it to be communicated by a manager or colleague.

Be supportive

As well as being there for the team member who is living with cancer, try to help everyone else understand the situation as best you can too. If other team members are being made aware of the person’s diagnosis, they might also have mixed emotions, concerns and questions for you.

Stay connected

If your employee will be having time away from work, ask them how they would like to be contacted. Make sure you keep in touch when they’re away, but don’t make them feel pressured to return. It’s important to ask how frequently they would like to be contacted, and in what way. Remember this could change.

Encourage check-ups

Early detection significantly increases your chances of surviving cancer. If you offer employees access to regular tests or checkups, you can improve employee engagement by promoting these benefits.

Lots of businesses have increased and evolved their health and wellbeing engagement programmes in recent years and employers have a real opportunity to encourage people to take part in regular screening and to seek help right away if they notice symptoms that could be cancer. 

Be flexible

It’s important that people feel they can take time off for screening or treatment if they need it. If symptoms are addressed quickly it could mean less time off in the long term.

Working from home and hybrid working has meant that many of us are getting better at balancing our professional and personal priorities; it’s important this continues and people feel trusted to take time for their health.

Supporting a colleague return back to work after cancer treatment

It’s not uncommon for someone who is returning to work after cancer treatment to have mixed emotions, from relief and excitement to be returning to ‘everyday life’; to being worried about whether or not they’ll be able cope.

It’s a good idea to get in contact with a colleague before they return to work to understand what, if any, support they may need. Discuss whether they’ll be able to return to their usual hours, or if changes need to be made, at least in the first few weeks, to accommodate their return to work.

Empower and educate your employees on how they can best support the person returning to work, whether that’s just a friendly chat, or providing them with more information about what that person has been through.

Organisations play a key role in supporting an individual going through a cancer diagnosis, whether it’s providing access to services which can detect cancer or support with treatment and the psychological impact, or educating the workforce, embedding specialist guidance and adjustments to support those diagnosed to continue to succeed at work.

Bupa offers targeted cancer screenings for businesses, which can include breast and cervical checks, or prostate and testicular checks, with the addition of bowel cancer screening if wished. These cancer screening examinations can also be included in our employee health assessments. We look for signs of common cancers and support your employees with any next steps.

For more information on how to support your employees, download our manager’s guide, and find your nearest centre here.