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  • Writer's pictureLiz Naulls

Four steps to creating a cancer strategy that involves everyone

Talking about cancer remains taboo, despite the fact that one in two people are expected to suffer from it – but employers can help provide support

A cancer diagnosis is always a shock. No matter the age or circumstances of the sufferer, those two little words ‘it’s cancer’ are life changing.

According to Cancer Research UK, half of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes, while the rest will almost certainly experience supporting a loved one through it.

Unfortunately, cancer is hitting the headlines following the Covid-19 pandemic. As pressure mounts on the NHS, more than a quarter of patients are waiting longer than six weeks for diagnostic tests while almost four in 10 patients are having to wait more than two months for their first cancer treatment after an urgent GP referral.

Employers need to pay attention. According to Macmillan, one in three cancer sufferers are of working age. And when a colleague is diagnosed with cancer, people will be concerned and upset. Providing guidance and help to colleagues, such as mental health and emotional support, can make a real difference. It’s also important to address any practical challenges head-on, for example, questions about changing workload for the sufferer and the effect on other team members.

Traditionally, cancer has been a taboo subject. According to Macmillan research, one-fifth of line managers felt either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ uncomfortable talking about cancer, with 87% saying they had not trained how to support people with long term conditions, including cancer. Many people find it difficult to open up at work about needing support. Lime Insurance’s research found 75% of workers admitted to putting on a brave face at work rather than being honest about how they are feeling, a phenomenon it has named ‘pleasanteeism’.

In April 2022, Lime asked more than 2000 people to share their views on how and what support they would need if they were diagnosed with cancer. While financial support was high on the list (36%), so was concern for others, with the same proportion (36%) wanting emotional support for family members – more than the number of people asking for mental health support for themselves. Of those who had been diagnosed with cancer, a similar serious illness and/or cared for a loved one in that situation, fewer than half felt that their employer was supportive (495), while 35% said there was no support at all.

What can employers do?

1. Look and listen – ask some basic questions to understand the state of cancer support in your organisation today. Speak to people who have been affected by cancer as well as their line managers to find out about their experience of cancer in the workplace – from diagnosis to treatment to return to work. What support would have been most helpful? Was there an appropriate level of communication? What was the impact across the wider team? It’s useful to repeat this exercise regularly to ensure your strategy is fit for purpose.

2. Culture shift - do people in your organisation feel comfortable talking about the challenges they face and asking for support? Take steps to tackle pleasanteeism and create a compassionate culture so that people can be more open about what they need. Encouraging a more open conversation about cancer support can help open the door to a frank and helpful approach to health and wellbeing more broadly. Lime offers some tips in its Keeping up appearances report.

3. Benefits audit – Review your benefits offering in light of step 1. Consider how to incorporate holistic cancer support – financial, emotional and practical – into your benefits, across the entire workforce. Benefits that provide the right support at the right time can help sufferers, their families, colleagues and managers whenever its needed – whether waiting for a diagnosis or returning to work.

4. Effective rollout – Once you’ve got the right processes, benefits and support in place, ensure everyone in the organisation knows what is available and how to access it (this will likely include flagging other external sources of support, such as charities and the government). Depending on the size and structure of your organisation, consider bringing together a panel of employees (such as line managers, internal communications experts, HR and anyone affected by cancer) who can help steer the way you engage your employees and ensure they get the support they need from your cancer strategy.

This paper is the first in a series from Lime on the impact of cancer in the workplace. Watch out for more on LinkedIn.



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