Study highlights problems faced by cancer patients returning to work

A new study shows the work-related issues associated with returning to work after having cancer, with many not aware that they can ask for adjustments under the Equality Act.

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Recent research has uncovered the problems faced by cancer patients returning to work. The mental health impact of cancer is worse than the physical health one for many working-age patients, with the majority of saying they feel guilty about taking time off work for vital treatment and worrying that they are a burden to their colleagues, according to a new study.

The study found that many reduce their hours as a result, but the majority remain the main income-earner in their household.

The survey of 1,241 working age people living with cancer, timed to coincide with World Cancer Day, was conducted by Stephen Bevan of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Barbara Wilson of Working With Cancer – who both live with cancer. Other findings include:

  • Only 57% of cancer patients returning to work knew they were legally disabled under the 2010 Equality Act.
  • Over half said that their medical teams or occupational health professionals did not discuss their return to work, and only 22% of HR departments told patients about their right to ask for reasonable adjustments and a phased return to work.
  • A third of respondents did not make a phased return to work and a quarter had to take annual leave to receive vital cancer treatment.
  • While most respondents had received positive support from their colleagues and line managers, a significant minority experienced bullying, being shunned at work and redundancy.
  • Those living with advanced or metastatic cancer reported receiving lower levels of support and access to workplace adjustments, suggesting that many employers find it more difficult to know how to support patients with complex cancers and those with a terminal diagnosis.

Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development at IES said: “Although cancer survival rates are increasing, which is good news, it is disappointing that so many people living with cancer face barriers to getting back to work after often distressing treatment. It is especially concerning that so few GPs and specialist cancer nurses are having conversations with patients about work.”

CEO of Working with Cancer Barbara Wilson added: “We are worried that so many people living with cancer – and their employers – remain unaware that the Equality Act entitles cancer patients to workplace adjustments which can help them return to work and to adjust to a life with or after cancer. Our own work with people living with cancer shows that access to information about managing work and cancer, coaching support and flexible working can make an enormous difference to people’s lives.”

One in two people in the UK is likely to receive a cancer diagnosis, including half of those of working age while fewer than two-thirds of employees with cancer have returned to work or are still working a year after getting a diagnosis.

The report highlights several areas where both healthcare professionals and employers can do more to ensure that more people living with cancer can return to work successfully and sustainably. These include:

  • Healthcare professionals should prioritise return to work as a clinical outcome of their care.
  • There should be improved training on having return to work conversations for cancer nurse specialists, GPs and occupational health professionals – with a specific recognition of the mental health challenges faced by many patients.
  • Employers should update their return to work policies to recognise the provisions of the Equality Act as it related to people living with cancer.
  • Employers should offer 1;1 coaching on return to work practices for both cancer patients and line managers.
  • Employers should support and fund ‘buddy networks’ of employees who have had experience of cancer to help provide peer support and guidance for colleagues and their managers.


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