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With the immense pressures on the NHS post pandemic, organisations must become innovative to support their people with the direct and indirect effects of cancer.

Now that we have entered the ‘living with COVID’ phase, it’s time for us to face the secondary consequences of the pandemic. Over the course of lockdowns and social restrictions, we had put much of our lives on pause and diverted our focus to deal with the crisis at hand. Though in the face of the virus other societal problems seemed out of sight, they were, in fact, just accumulating; problems such as the repercussions on healthcare which resulted from the delays in cancer testing and treatment.  

Almost a third of people receiving care had a test, procedure or appointment cancelled or delayed during this time, according to Cancer Research UK. Compounding the issue, some people felt too afraid to go to medical appointments or were worried about taking up much needed resources and so avoided even getting tested for the disease.

It’s now estimated that it will take at least a further 10 years to clear the backlog.

We all know that the earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome. And we are only too aware that 1 in 2 of us will develop cancer in our lifetimes. In actual fact, most of us can count far too many people we know personally that have fought this illness.

The current reality is that individuals will not get optimal testing and cancer care because our NHS is struggling to cope with demand. Though we can be hopeful, there is no quick solution in sight.

Given that cancer will continue to affect so much of the working population, whether directly through a diagnosis or indirectly, and considering the limitations of the NHS, businesses have become concerned for the health of their workforce. As a result, many forward-looking organisations have turned their attention to cancer prevention.

As with any health and wellbeing issue, investing in cancer prevention yields better and more cost-effective outcomes than focusing on response alone. So, as a part of their wellbeing strategies, businesses have been taking action to facilitate behaviour change in people’s lifestyles, and to help mitigate the 38% of cancer cases which are deemed to be preventable.

There is a real fear that cancer survival rates may drop because of the state of the health system.

The innovation is in the simplicity. With all the nation has been through collectively these last few years, dealing with one crisis after another, it’s hard for many to prioritise changing habits in order to better their long-term health outcomes. Whereas employers are in a unique position to motivate staff with initiatives to help them achieve positive behavioural change.

Moreover, the likelihood of developing cancer increases with age and so with an aging workforce, businesses can expect to see even more of their people affected by the disease. In the past employers have relied on utilising flexible working, occupational health services and making reasonable adjustments to manage illnesses like cancer in the workplace. It is imperative that this support is available, but some organisations like BNY Mellon have gone further with a more hands-on attitude.

They provided employees with opportunities for cancer testing at home and on-site, along with awareness raising about the early signs. For example, as part of one year’s wellness campaign they offered a home testing kit for bowel cancer which received an overwhelmingly positive response from staff.

There is a real opportunity here to make cancer support more inclusive.

Notably, this approach of making cancer screening more convenient also makes it more likely that co-workers who are unable to prioritise their own health needs easily, or who have a reluctance to see doctors, will take the test. This includes groups such as carers who often struggle to make time for their own appointments, and men who see the GP half as much as women during working age.

Of course, no one has yet developed a formula to avert the disease altogether, so companies do have to ensure their support for employees battling cancer is robust. Line managers are the key to easing many of the practical barriers around managing to work with a cancer diagnosis or feeling enabled to take time off to heal, without worrying about employment. Increasingly companies have been training their leaders to better support their people in these situations.

All in all, it speaks to the bigger issue that employers are facing. We can’t ignore the fact that the gap between free medical services and need is growing. And we can’t ignore the fact that state funding into prevention is diminishing by the year and has been inadequate for a long time. Nowhere is this more evident than with cancer.

By bringing screening into the workplace, providing fast free access to virtual GPs, or supporting staff to lower their risk factors, organisations are stepping in to bolster employee health. This kind of investment in wellbeing not only supports a healthier workforce, but it grows employee loyalty.

What can employers do?

Raise awareness – make information about the early signs and risk factors of cancer, a part of your wellbeing discussion and strategy.

Open up the conversation – the cancer journey can be overwhelming and it’s quite normal for a person not to absorb all the information given to them. To support the process, ask an employee if they would like a trusted colleague or rep to attend meetings about their health and support.

Actively offer practical support – don’t wait to be asked. A staff member may not know what they might need or even what to ask for. Being proactive will undoubtedly be helpful and relieve some stress.

Support your line managers – like any member of staff who has had their own experience of cancer, managers may find their anxieties triggered whilst trying to support newly diagnosed employees. Ensure support for emotional wellbeing is easy to find online for all workers.

The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.

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