Supporting young cancer survivors in the workplace

The growing number of people, especially young people, working with cancer creates a new challenge for HR leaders: are their organisation adequately supporting employees facing cancer? And what truly constitutes best practice in this context?Cancer rates in under-50s have surged by 24 percent since 1995, despite common misconceptions that it primarily affects older generations. With this alarming increase, more young professionals are being diagnosed and returning to the work in the midst of their treatment and recovery. The growing number of people, especially young people, working with cancer creates a new challenge for HR leaders: are their organisation adequately supporting people? And what truly constitutes best practice in this context?

The sad reality is that although there is legislation designed to protect employees with cancer, like the Equality Act 2010, 71 percent of UK workers with cancer still fear telling their colleagues about their diagnosis. And 40 percent of people with cancer have used their annual leave for medical appointments, rather than telling their employers they are undergoing treatment.

The fear that comes with disclosing a diagnosis is largely due to the stigma that still exists around the disease and the lack of open conversations about cancer at work. So, while employees that choose to come back are often coping with massive physical and mental challenges, they must also face fears of prejudice or ignorance from colleagues and managers.

Workplace challenges can be even harder for individuals with treatable but incurable cancer. Many people choose to continue working to maintain a sense of normality in their lives and can do so successfully for many years after their diagnosis. Fostering broader understanding of the challenges they face and creating support structures are vital to ensuring these individuals can work effectively and avoid the unnecessary stress of workplace stigma.

And yet, there are still too many employers that are not helping, despite their best intentions. They tend to underestimate the experiences of their employees who have or are still navigating their journey. A common misconception is that employees with cancer may no longer want to continue their career in the same way or that they are incapable of handling everything they could do before.

Cancer is difficult. It can be isolating to the individual, creating fear of discrimination or judgment but it is also a challenge to business leaders who must suddenly provide a level of support they may not be prepared or trained for.


So, what makes best practice?

Too often employers fail to recognise that cancer affects everyone differently and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is ineffective. Similarly, an individual’s recovery is not a linear process, rather it’s a process not an event. With this in mind, HR should focus on a clear but flexible approach that supports de-stigmatising cancer at work and deals with the common challenges cancer sufferers face in completing their day-to-day responsibilities. Valuable focus areas include:

  • Policy and practices: Putting in place clear employment policies and practices for those diagnosed with cancer, making these visible and easily accessible to all employees. This should provide clarity for anyone facing cancer, exactly where they stand with employment status, sick pay, time-off and all potential questions that someone would ask after a diagnosis. Examples include flexible working arrangements, providing a phased return to work of at least 12 weeks, potential workplace and work adjustments, arrangements for time out of work and so on.
  • Visible commitment: Encouraging open conversations about cancer at work is vital to de-stigmatising it. Where possible organisations should make clear their commitment to employees and give assurances on their long-term employment. Participating in the Global Working With Cancer Pledge campaign, in partnership with Working With Cancer, is a great way to take a visible commitment.
  • Return to work conversations: Are a vital part of the employer-employee dialogue, and yet our data shows just half of employees returning to work after diagnosis are having them today. This may be down to the taboo of having open conversations around cancer and what it means for work. However, an initial conversation with a trained Occupational Health or HR professional, is critical in assuaging employee concerns, signposting key information and support structures and ensuring everyone knows where they stand.
  • Leader and manager training: Supporting employees through their cancer journey requires a nuanced understanding of the disease. An example is that fatigue affects nearly 65 percent of cancer patients and is often their most disruptive symptom. Organisations should provide training for both leaders and line managers on how to support colleagues with cancer. Likewise one-on-one coaching for employers and managers can be vital in ensuring that individuals receive the necessary one-to-one assistance to navigate the complexities of their work and health.
  • A culture of empathy and support: Encouraging a culture of empathy and understanding is essential. Establishing peer support networks, such as a buddy system can ease the transition back into work and make it much less daunting. Employers can do so much more to highlight the necessary workplace support they provide to all those affected by cancer, getting those with cancer to tell their story, commending their resilience, and openly encouraging them to continue to pursue their careers within the organisation.

As cancer diagnoses in young working age adults continue to rise, addressing the stigma and improving support systems in the workplace are imperative. With the right approach, work should and can be not only an anchor of normality for cancer sufferers, but a vital and positive pillar of support as they face their individual cancer journey.