‘Stigmatisation of cancer is very real’: more needs to be done to support employees with cancer at work


Ahead of National Cancer Survivor Day on 2nd June, and in light of many celebrities talking about their return to work after cancer treatment – not least King Charles – we are putting the spotlight on how employers can support rehabilitation. 

This is an increasingly important topic given that the number of under-50s being diagnosed with cancer has increased 80% in the last 30 years and the number of cancer survivors is set to double from more than 2 million in 2010 to 4 million by 2030. All of which means that more and more employees are going to be living and working with cancer, something we’re already seeing.

In fact, according to Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD, the industry body for the group risk protection sector, “last year cancer was the top cause of claim for all three group risk products”.

28 Days off before telling HR

But, while there is much more open talk about the disease in the media, this openness is not necessarily flowing down into workplaces, according to Reframe Cancer’s new research. This shows that most sufferers take 28 days off before even telling HR about their diagnosis.

As Mark Stephenson, CEO at Reframe Cancer, says:

“Sadly the research shows that stigmatisation of cancer is very real, and many employees feel as though they have to hide their cancer diagnosis, concerns and even symptoms, in 2024 this feels very wrong.”

Massive wake-up call needed

This stigma means that often it makes it very difficult for employees to access any support that might be there for them. Consequently, Reframe Cancer is calling on employers to undergo a “massive wake up call” to re-evaluate their cancer support in the workplace “so people don’t feel they have to keep it to themselves for so long before telling their HR team or colleagues”.

The research also shows that employees with cancer believe their colleagues consider them a burden during their cancer journey (45%) and so many don’t feel they can openly talk to their colleagues about their diagnosis and treatment (35%). 

On top of this, 35% report feeling isolated at work and the research also shows that employees who feel this way actually take more time off work during their treatment and recovery – 4.7 weeks compared to the average 4.3 weeks. 

Isolation leads to longer recovery

“This in itself highlights the importance of employers supporting employees sufficiently and how it can help reduce employee absence, which in turn can help reduce business costs,” says Stephenson. ”If employees are fully supported in the workplace, things can be very different, and they can return to work sooner and often with a renewed sense of self and become authentic champions for the business.”

According to Reframe’s stats, cancer absence costs can have a huge effect on businesses: the average employee will be absent from work for 15 weeks (approximately 75 working days based on full-time employment). That means, with a forecast of 160,000 people of working age receiving a cancer diagnosis each year, and an average employee salary of £34,963, this could mean a potential £1.6 billion cost to UK businesses.

Legal obligation, not just moral

Apart from being the right thing to do, as Health Assured’s CEO Bertrand Stern-Gillet also points out – supporting employees with cancer is also required by law:

“Cancer is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which means there are certain protections in place from the moment of diagnosis until the end of a person’s life, even when they have completed treatment and are clear of the disease. So failing to put the right measures in place to support an employee returning to work following cancer treatment could land you in employment tribunal.”

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He suggests, if employers haven’t recently, that they review their existing policies and procedures to ensure that they are fit for purpose and put any health and safety adjustments in place. 

Put policies in place

But less than a third of organisations (30%) have any kind of support in place, says Sharron Moffat, Mental Health Trainer and Speaker, who herself lives and works with cancer. “Add the stigma around cancer, the extra financial costs of living with cancer (over £500 a month) and managing symptoms, so much more needs to be done to educate employers.”

That said, there are pockets of really encouraging, supportive work going on in this area – like advertising network Publicis’s work with the Working with Cancer Initiative, which has included the creation of an ‘Activation Playbook’ that serves as a research for employers which have taken the ‘Working with Cancer’ pledge. So far, about 10% of the Global 500 companies have made a commitment to create a more supportive and recovery-forward workplace.

But for those less ahead on the curve, the first thing Moffatt advises employers to do is to check your policies are up to date, which means looking at policies which cover: sickness, longterm conditions, health and wellbeing, emergency leave and the Carers Leave Act 2023 (which came into force on April 6th 2024).

“Organisations need structured policies to address the increasing prevalence [of cancer] and ensure consistent support,” she says.

Beyond policy and procedures

But support goes way beyond policies and procedures. Moffatt suggests: training managers and educating employees; raising awareness of cancer; establishing confidential support systems; promoting a culture of empathy and inclusivity and implementing mental health support services.

And as Jen Fisher, Human Sustainability Leader, Deloitte US told us, when she was going through her cancer experience “the most important thing that an employer can do is have the right benefits to support somebody”. (See here for her profile feature).

Employers falling short

Unfortunately, though, this is again an area where Reframe’s research shows employers are falling short: a huge 77% of employees felt that their employee benefits didn’t fully meet their needs through cancer.

While Fisher is talking from a US perspective, it’s still relevant to the UK given the immense pressure on the NHS now and the fact employers have an opportunity to step in and really provide valuable support to employees.

Indeed, Perci Health’s new research shows that employers are seeing an increasing number of their workforce affected by cancer, with the financial and emotional impact of the disease being a major concern. 

Gaps in care

The report also reveals that employers are noticing gaps in care for employees and believe there is an over-reliance on charities to fill these gaps. It found that almost 7 in 10 employers say there is a gap in support for prevention (68%), a gap in support around diagnosis (68%) and a gap in support around recovery and rehabilitation (68%).

According to Morgan Fitzsimons, Co-Founder of Perci Health, “prevention is a key focus”, especially as we are seeing an increasing amount of younger employees being diagnosed. Given, too, that 35% of NHS screening is not attended, there is an opportunity for employers to step in and “support employees with the information they need to understand how to decrease their risk and understand what screening they should attend”. 

Employer opportunity

Employers can play a hugely valuable role in catching the cancer earlier and helping ensure effective care is provided. As Fizsimons says:

“Effective care includes ensuring people living with and beyond cancer can live healthy happy lives. My hope for the future is that we will be able to provide end-to-end support from prevention and during treatment, to post treatment and survivorship. Because it makes business sense as well as being the right thing to do. Together we can redefine what it means to live with cancer.”

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