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Cancer patients fail to get basic support to thrive at work, finds survey

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A quarter of working age people living with cancer say they have had to take annual leave to receive vital treatment, according to research published today for World Cancer Day.


The research conducted by Stephen Bevan of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Barbara Wilson of Working With Cancer – who both live with cancer – reveals that the majority of those surveyed say that the mental health impact of their treatment is greater than the physical impact.

Most feel guilty about taking time off for vital treatment and worry that they are a burden to their colleagues. And while there is a large fall in full-time working for those returning to work, the majority remain the main income-earner in their household.

The research exposes the challenges many people living with cancer face in returning to, and thriving at, work. Photograph: iStock

The survey of 1,241 working age people living with cancer was timed to coincide with World Cancer Day which takes place today on 4 February. It highlights the importance of work for most cancer patients but also exposes the challenges many face in returning to, and thriving at, work.

Other headlines from the survey include:

  • Only 57 per cent of cancer patients returning to work knew they were legally disabled under the 2010 Equality Act.
  • Over half said that their medical teams or occupational health professionals did not discuss their return to work, and only 22 per cent of HR departments told patients about their right to ask for reasonable adjustments and a phased return to work.

  • A third of respondents did not make a phased return to work

  • While most respondents had received positive support from their colleagues and line managers, a significant minority experienced bullying, being shunned at work and redundancy.

  • Those living with advanced or metastatic cancer reported receiving lower levels of support and access to workplace adjustments, suggesting that many employers find it more difficult to know how to support patients with complex cancers and those with a terminal diagnosis.

Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development at IES said today: “Although cancer survival rates are increasing, which is good news, it is disappointing that so many people living with cancer face barriers to getting back to work after often distressing treatment. It is especially concerning that so few GPs and specialist cancer nurses are having conversations with patients about work.”

CEO of Working with Cancer Barbara Wilson commented: “We are worried that so many people living with cancer – and their employers - remain unaware that the Equality Act entitles cancer patients to workplace adjustments which can help them return to work and to adjust to a life with or after cancer.

“Our own work with people living with cancer shows that access to information about managing work and cancer, coaching support and flexible working can make an enormous difference to people’s lives.”

Most cancer patients feel guilty about taking time off for vital treatment and worry that they are a burden to their colleagues. Photograph: iStock

With 1 in 2 people in the UK likely to receive a cancer diagnosis, and half of those of working age, it essential that employers and healthcare professionals give a higher priority to good employment outcomes for cancer patients. Sadly, fewer than two-thirds of employees with cancer have returned to work or are still working a year after getting a diagnosis, often adding to the mental health and financial woes of many.

The report urges employers to update their return to work policies to recognise the provisions of the Equality Act as it related to people living with cancer. It also suggests that employees who have had experience of cancer should be encouraged to form ‘buddy networks’ to help provide peer support and guidance for colleagues and their managers.

Access the survey here

Stephen Bevan will be speaking at Keep Thriving, a Virtual Conference hosted by British Safety Council, as part of its beingwelltogether programme, on Wednesday 9 February. To sign up visit: bit.ly/3IS7or8 

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