Workplace Wellbeing Focus - Working Towards Wellbeing

Friday, 24 March 2017

Jon Blackburn, Clinical & Rehabilitation Services Manager at Aviva, speaks to Julie Denning, a Clinical Director and Partner at Working Towards Wellbeing, about their experiences of supporting cancer sufferers and helping them make a successful return to the workplace.

How many UK workers are now directly affected by cancer and how is this likely to change over the next 10 years?

In 2015, there were 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK and this is expected to reach 4 million people by 2030. Each year almost 340,000 people are diagnosed with cancer and of these 100,000 are of working age. With people now living nearly 10 times longer post diagnosis than they did 40 years ago, cancer treatments improving and people living and working for longer, more and more people of working age will be living with, and beyond cancer.

It’s useful for employers to know that UK government data has found that over half of people diagnosed with cancer whilst at work were not informed by their healthcare professional about the impact it would have on their working life. Furthermore, 47% of people who are at work when diagnosed reported that their employer did not discuss flexible working arrangements or workplace adjustments. Of those giving up work, 43% said it was due to physical incapacity and 25% due to not being emotionally strong enough. This gives a clear indication of the areas of support that people most need when returning to the workplace.

You talk to hundreds of employees living and working with cancer – what would you say are employees biggest concerns about returning to work, or in some cases, remaining in work during their treatment?

The biggest concerns are around managing their symptoms whilst at work, e.g. fatigue, pain and mental health difficulties, and whether they are able to perform at the level they did prior to their diagnosis. They often report a lack of confidence and this can be related to concentration and memory issues as well as not having the stamina to be at work for periods of time. They can also be concerned about what is expected of them and can feel daunted at the prospect of returning to work after what can be many months or even years. People often report that their workplace has changed significantly since they have been off sick and in some cases have new line managers or even offices. These are the sorts of issues that need to be discussed when planning a return to work with employees.

Managers often say to us that they don’t feel confident about how to support staff members diagnosed with cancer – even to the point of how to start a conversation about their recent diagnosis. Do you have any tips or pointers on how a line manager opens up conversations on ‘how can we as your employer support you?’

There are any numbers of ways to start a conversation about cancer but the most important thing is not to be scared about bringing the topic up. Start by asking how things are? What can we do to help you? What support do you need? How regularly would you like us to be in contact whilst you are going through treatment? How would you prefer to hear from us?

The most important thing is that your employee doesn’t feel abandoned by you whilst away from the workplace. Keeping in touch helps retain a sense of normality for many people. Don’t feel the need to wrap your colleague up in cotton wool or to be 100% well - is this what you would want if you were in their position? The most important thing is to ask them what they need from you at this point in time. Keeping the dialogue open will facilitate a smooth return to work when your colleague is ready. Sometimes an employee may not want to talk to you whilst they are going through treatment. It can be helpful to keep the communication channels open and regularly keep in touch, for example, by sending through a company newsletter with a hand written note or sending regular emails about any changes to the business. If you do this in an informal way, it lets them know that they haven’t been forgotten.

How can we best support employees who want to remain at work during their cancer treatment and when should we be asking for the advice of their GP, Specialist or Oncology nurse?

People are normally able to tell you directly what they are able to do and what would be difficult for them. A plan to support them to remain at, or to return to work, can be generated from there. Our experience at working towards wellbeing in our Cancer Work Support Service is that often people overestimate what they can do and try to return to work too quickly. We often pull people back, getting them to start out gently and build up slowly. In the long run this leads to a more successful return to work than if they push themselves too hard then have to stop due to pain or fatigue. We always advise employers and employees that it’s important to be flexible and to shift the plan if there are minor set backs during the return to work, as this will be most likely to result in a sustainable return in the longer term.

It is always useful to have a joined up approach. Working together means that your colleagues will be getting the best support at any given time. If an individual wants to return to work it can be useful to get advice from professionals involved in their care as to how much work they might be able to do and if there are any precautions you need to take to safeguard their health. For example, some people may need to work from home if their immune system has been significantly compromised whereas others may need to have their desk repositioned so that it is near a toilet. Certain jobs might need to be adjusted, for example those in clinical roles may no longer be able to work in laboratories but can continue with research and office based roles. People undertaking manual work may need to be supported with restrictions to the work they do during treatment and be given time to get fit again for the role once treatment is over. Sometimes furniture or equipment needs to be reviewed and adjusted to improve comfort. In these cases a workplace assessment may be required to advise on the modifications and adjustments that may help the person.

What support services are available for employees (and their employer) diagnosed with cancer?

Employees can use services such as the one provided by Working Towards Wellbeing to help them to get ready for a return to work. They can also contact charities such as Macmillan which have a wealth of information and a helpline for advice. Employers can also access Macmillan’s information on work and cancer and can request support from Working Towards Wellbeing for advice and training on how to support their employee.

Shared from Aviva