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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
September 2, 2016

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Surviving cancer and returning to work

medic-563425_640The rising number of cancer survivors is having an impact on employers, says Dr Nick Summerton, GP. In his article for SHP, he explains how to best manage their return to work, improve their wellbeing and hasten their recovery.

If you’re given a cancer diagnosis now you’re twice as likely to survive for ten years than you would have been in the 1970s.

This is great news – but is also a situation that has implications for employers.

Survival rates are now at their highest ever level in England, meaning 2.5 million people are currently living with cancer in the UK as a result of improvements in diagnosis and treatments, with every likelihood that survival rates will continue to improve.

The number of people living with cancer mean it’s becoming more similar to other chronic illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes or epilepsy. Serious conditions that require long-term attention and treatment – but really shouldn’t be assumed to be an end to someone’s working life. My experience as a GP is that work plays an important part in improving the wellbeing and hastening the recovery among cancer sufferers.

Labeling someone as a victim of a cancer, who shouldn’t be in work, is detrimental to their general health and recovery. Having six months at home to think about cancer isn’t doing anyone any good, not the individual and not the organisation that’s missing their skills – particularly those older workers, more likely to be affected, and all of their experience.

A culture change is needed in terms of attitudes to people with cancer generally, and particularly in the workplace. It’s estimated that more than a third of people living with cancer are adults of working age (under 65). As more people work for longer, the more significant the issue and the greater the importance of understanding among occupational health and HR professionals.

Currently, as a result of time off work and loss of income for patients (and their carers), cancer is estimated to cost employers £5.5 billion each year due to lost productivity.

Cancer survivors can often need to live with long-term consequences. Around a quarter of people treated for cancer in the UK are said to continue to need NHS care, even after being entirely cleared of the disease.

Impacts of treatments received include diabetes, an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and osteoporosis, as well as unpleasant symptoms like urinary leakage (which affects 40% of `cured` prostate cancer patients). Some 47% of survivors remain worried about cancer recurrence, leading to more serious psychological implications, problems with self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

More simply, there are policies and procedures that will help create a more accommodating environment, keeping survivors in work. Employers need to consider, think through and be open and clear on what level of support and flexibility they are able to provide employees affected by cancer – staff need that level of certainty and reassurance.

This might include flexibility in working hours for medical appointments or other treatments; making adaptations to the workplace that allows more space, time and confidentiality for people dealing with symptom concerns (like bladder or bowel problems), and the chance to have private and necessary conversations with a health professional.

Regular contact and discussions of cancer symptoms are critical, and shouldn’t be dependent on waiting to visit a GP or a booked hospital check-up. Skype and phone can be just as useful as early diagnosis is as much about spotting recurrences as the initial diagnosis.

In a world where cancer plays such a significant part in people’s lives – as patients, as carers or within families – employers have a larger role to play, as part of their statutory ‘duty of care’ but more importantly in demonstrating their understanding and commitment to offering ‘people-shaped’ employment, that they are a genuine people business.

In this context, all health and wellbeing programmes are important, anything on exercise, weight, smoking, is relevant to improving chances of avoiding cancer and also likelihood of a strong recovery. Most usefully, employers will provide support for monitoring cancer, cancer risk and recurrence, in order to provide the all-important early diagnosis.

People with cancer are also often `neglected` by health services when it comes to general health, put into a category of ‘cancer care’ where other potential health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, are seen as less relevant in the circumstances. But all the evidence shows that people with cancer who ignore other ongoing medical problems do much less well in terms of recovery and cure.

Employers can help staff keep that broader perspective, with referrals for GP consultations that can provide more regular checks and reassurance. The fact is that people are far more likely to listen to health advice and attend appointments for check-ups that are organised by an employer, part of a structure of wellbeing and responsibility, than being left to arrangements as part of an everyday hurly-burly.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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