Working with cancer

Eileen Watts is a mum of five. She is one of around 560,000 people in the UK workforce who have cancer. reports on a new partnership aimed at providing them and their employers with more support.

Last autumn Eileen Watts was attending a wedding in London when the stomach pains she had been suffering worsened and her bowel ruptured. The mother of five was rushed to hospital. Ten days later she was told she had cancer which had spread and reached an advanced stage.

She was in hospital for more than three weeks while they operated on her bowel and treated her for septicaemia and pneumonia. At one point the doctors didn’t think she would pull through. Six weeks after her operation she started chemotherapy, which she is still undergoing.

Eileen, whose sons are aged 10, 9, 7, 5 and 2, was working as a scientist in Dundee at the time of her diagnosis. She kept her work in the loop from day one and she popped in and out of the office when she could.

She has returned to work because she wants to get some normality back into her life. She is on a “therapeutic” programme, working five hours a week – 2.5 hours for two days a week – which her employer strictly enforces. They are also very flexible about how she does her hours and offered her an advance because they didn’t want her to be worrying about money or work on top of everything else.

She says: “I wanted to work to feel normal again. I’m perfectly healthy, I’ve just got cancer – that’s how I feel. I wanted to go back to feel myself and do the things I’d done before. My consultant thought it would be good for me too and give me something stimulating for my mind. It’s much better that sitting at home, feeling bad – that’s not to say there aren’t bad days, but for me it’s about not sinking into the depths of despair.”

Working with cancer

Eileen is one of 560,000 people with cancer who are currently in the workforce. That number is set to rise to one million, with rising prevalence and survival rates, according to a report by Oxford Economics in collaboration with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and insurer Unum.

It reveals that as many as 63,000 people living with cancer today want to work, but are encountering barriers that prevent them from doing so. This is because the right support isn’t in place for them or their employers.

Research found the reasons for barriers are complex, as despite employers’ initial efforts to support people returning to work, relationships can quickly, and unintentionally, break down due to a lack of regular and meaningful communication and shared understanding from both sides.

Eileen thinks there is a definite grey area for employers where they don’t know about the law and their responsibilities. There was certain paperwork that had to be done in her case which she had to guide her employer on because they had never done it before. She thinks employers need to be more clued up about what happens with cancer and what help is out there.

The adverse effects of people with cancer not being able to work can be significant – the research describes it as a ‘triple whammy’ effect: diagnosis, followed by job loss or negative experiences at work, leading to a total collapse in self esteem. Employers can also lose out as a result, through lost talent, decreased staff morale and a negative effect on their bottom line of managing absence and replacement costs. And consequently, the UK economy is losing out on £1.8 billion every year, the report estimates.

Maggie’s, which operates support centres for people with cancer, and Unum, which works with businesses and employees on income protection and rehabilitation, have come together to encourage open and honest dialogue between people with cancer and their employers to help avoid these barriers and ensure the opportunities for both people living with cancer and their employers aren’t lost. With the right support in place, by 2030 an additional 136,000 people with cancer who want to work could, they say, and they could contribute an additional £3.5bn to the UK economy.

Lesley Howells, Maggie’s Lead of Research and Centre Head Dundee, says: “Many people living with cancer aren’t able or don’t want to work after treatment, but for those who can and choose to, it can be vital to their psychological wellbeing. People with cancer who use our centres tell us work provides a focus outside of their illness, and can help build a sense of normality, security, structure and purpose. Crucially, it can have a hugely positive effect on their self esteem, empowering them to live well with cancer. For these reasons, their return to work must be managed carefully, with the right support provided to both those living with cancer and their employers.”

She adds: “It’s vital that employers provide the right support for an employee returning to work with cancer. This involves maintaining ongoing, meaningful communication and gaining and demonstrating better understanding. But employers also need support – they are looking to the person with cancer to set the tone and need more guidance from them on what they need, as everyone’s experiences are different.”

Joy Reymond, Head of Rehabilitation & Health Management Services at Unum, says: “Employers want to do the right thing by their staff, but are often stumbling in the dark, without guidance. The role of the line manager too cannot be underestimated. The report shows they often have the biggest impact on someone’s experience of working with cancer because they are often the main contact the employee has with their employer.

“With the right support and guidance these barriers can be overcome, and those living with cancer who choose to work can do so, avoiding the ‘triple whammy’ effect and benefitting society as a whole.”

The partnership between Maggie’s and Unum will begin with the first of a series of free education events and resources aimed at employers, taking place in the Maggie’s Centre in London. Each of the nine Maggie’s centres across the UK will also host events throughout 2013.

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