World Cancer Day: Barely a third of employers offer cancer support

Less than a third of employers (30%) offer support for serious illnesses such as cancer to help people stay in or return to work, research has suggested.

With 4 February being World Cancer Day, the poll of 500 employers and 1,210 employees by the group risk industry body GRiD has argued this lack of support is despite serious ill health being a stated concern for 12% of employees of all ages, rising to 19% of over-55s.

Cancer is also the main reason employers claim for their staff across all group risk benefits (employer-sponsored life assurance, income protection and critical illness) according to GRiD’s claims data from 2016-2022.

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD, said: “When someone is diagnosed with cancer it can feel like the rug has been pulled from beneath their feet. When the time is right, being in work and all the positives that entails, such as providing stability, satisfaction, stimulation, and a sense of self-worth, are hugely important for the individual.

“Employers need to step up and ensure they are enabling people with cancer to remain in the workplace if they wish to do so,” she added.

Separately, the nurse-led workplace health wellbeing and service RedArc has warned employers to be vigilant for thoughtless and potentially hurtful comments by managers or colleagues to employees diagnosed with cancer or returning to the workplace post-diagnosis or treatment.

Comments such as “you are cancer free now so you should be happy”, while often well-meaning, can be insensitive and even hurtful, it has pointed out.

The service tracks the types of remarks that those with cancer have experienced and for which it has provided support. Examples include: “I am finding your illness and treatment very draining” (a husband’s comment to his wife); “you will be fine”; “you look so well” (to someone feeling and looking ill); and “will you lose your hair?”.

These examples, and many others, highlighted the value for employees navigating cancer of also offering emotional and mental health support, it has said.

Christine Husbands, commercial director at RedArc, said: “A poorly thought-out comment or unkind remark can be very detrimental to mental health, and that can be a lot for someone to deal with on top of their physical health.”

World Cancer Day is also an opportunity for employers to reflect on how best to be supporting overseas employees with cancer, provider Towergate Health & Protection has said.

It has highlighted the prevalence of cancer in first-world countries, even though it can often be assumed it is low-income countries, with poorer healthcare and low sanitation, where employees face the greatest health risks.

The highest reported cancer rate is in Denmark, at 334.9 people per 100,000, it has said, followed by Ireland, Belgium, Hungary, France, The Netherlands, Australia, Norway, New Caledonia and Slovenia, all with over 300 cases per 100,000 people.

Sarah Dennis, head of international at Towergate Health & Protection, said: “Reported cancer rates are higher in high-income countries and so, typically, are treatment costs. So it is important that employers understand the implications and have health and wellbeing plans in place to support people.”

Europe accounts for about 20% of the global cancer incidence and mortality, with about four million new cancer cases recorded in 2020 and an estimated 1.9 million people who died from cancers, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) has highlighted.

Yet, according to the UICC, even in countries with a tradition of robust healthcare – such as Sweden, the UK and Portugal – disparities exist in the risks of developing cancer, having it detected early and successfully treated.

These are a result of inequitable access to reliable information, screening, diagnostics, treatment and care services because of where people live, their economic status, level of education, ethnicity, age, physical and mental capabilities, age, gender and gender norms, sexual orientation and other socioeconomic factors, they pointed out.

To coincide with the awareness-raising day, the UICC has published a World Cancer Day 2024 Equity Report highlighting that modifiable behavioural factors contribute to over 40% of all cancer deaths.

To that end, implementing cost-efficient and evidence-based prevention measures, such as limiting the marketing, sales and consumption of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods that can lead to overweight and obesity, are crucial to reducing health inequity and the cancer burden, the UICC has said.