October is breast cancer awareness month. For the 48,000 women – and 350 men – diagnosed every year with the UK’s most common cancer, and for their friends and families, no reminders will be necessary. The rest of us could probably do with a wake-up call and there is nowhere this is more needed than in the workplace.
Support for Employees
Most people who contract the disease are of working age, and their work environment is a key factor in their recovery. Access to employer provided health and wellbeing programmes can be invaluable. This can be achieved by way of:
- Psychological support from an Employee Assistance Programme;
- Financial support available through Income Protection or Critical Illness policies (or similar cash benefit);
- Cover for treatment under a Private Medical Insurance scheme;
- Access to an NHS “top up” plan which can provide the assurance of cover for high cost drugs (within clinical guidelines) if they are not funded by your local Primary Care Trust.
What else can employers do?
On a practical level, the employer’s approach can determine whether financial worries will add to the mental stress of coping with the disease. The willingness (or indeed reluctance) of the employer to grant time off work can also impact the treatment programme. More subtly, employers and colleagues may wish to be helpful, but may not be understanding if the effects of treatment include some drop off in work performance. As an example, a small number of patients experience significant memory loss as a side effect of treatment.
Treatment commonly takes the form of surgery, followed by several months of chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. It is important to appreciate, however, that each case is unique. Not only are there several different types of breast cancer, but treatment is stressful, both physically and mentally, and people differ greatly in their reactions to it. For some younger women, these problems are compounded by the early onset of menopause caused by some treatment pathways.
Given the variety of individual experiences, it is imperative that an employer takes time to listen, understand, and accommodate an individual’s situation. This is not just a case of good practice; it is actually against the law not to do so. The Disability Discrimination Act was amended in 2005 to cover employees with cancer, and requires employers to make reasonable work adjustments to ensure that an employee with cancer is not disadvantaged.
How supportive are you?
Most employers naturally take a sympathetic attitude towards employees with cancer, but there are still some who do not. In a survey carried out by the charity “Breast Cancer Care“, only 62% of patients reported that their employer was supportive during treatment. This dropped to 52% who felt that this support continued after treatment. While most employers will provide time off work and “keep the door open”, not many make the effort to be proactive. The Breast Cancer Care survey found that under a quarter of respondents had regular meetings with their employer during and after treatment, and that it was similarly rare to find an employer who offered access to an occupational health officer or HR specialist.
Of course, anyone with a medical condition has the right to privacy and to decline any help offered. This can all too easily be an excuse, however, for not having assistance mechanisms in place. Someone with breast cancer is more likely to be open with colleagues about their condition and the problems they face if their employer has done the following things:
- Made a statement that any employee with cancer has the right to work in a sympathetic environment, free from prejudice.
- Made a clear statement that an employee with cancer will not have to use annual leave to get treatment.
- Provided clear information on financial arrangements, including company and statutory sick pay, together with a signpost to specialist advice.
- Offered the opportunity, but not the obligation, for an employee with cancer to have regular meetings where the impact of the diagnosis on their work can be discussed and reviewed. This should include sessions with an HR and/or occupational health specialist, if desired.
We would recommend that you consider implementing a clear policy so that all interested parties (including but not limited to the HR department, the line manager and, most importantly, the employee) know what support is available, along with the best practice approach to providing that support, in terms of proactive contact, reiteration of the benefits on offer, and potentially even assisting the employee with communicating with their immediate colleagues about their illness – something which can be extremely stressful and traumatic.
Even where budget is limited, there are low cost benefits (for example cancer cash benefits, providing a lump sum pay out on diagnosis) which can be offered on a company pay or flex basis and can provide invaluable support; Macmillan’s research shows that four in five cancer patients are hit with an average cost of £570 a month as a result of their illness.
The good news is that whereas barely half the people diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 survived beyond 5 years, this figure steadily increased to 85% by 2009. Whilst this improvement in mortality rates is largely due to medical advances, the impact of an employer’s approach to an employee’s illness (both practical support in terms of benefit access, and the less tangible support demonstrated through flexibility and empathy) should not be underestimated.