When we think of the reasons for employee absenteeism, we often think of back pain, wrist strain or stress leave. Yet while musculoskeletal (MSK) and anxiety-related conditions account for a significant proportion of absences, we tend to forget the heavy toll that cancer takes on the workplace.
According to the New Zealand government, work-related diseases are responsible for an estimated 516 to 804 lives lost per year and as many as 20,000 new disease occurrences. Of these, work-related cancer plays a considerable role[i]. In addition, cancer carries a significant economic burden with far-reaching implications. One UK estimate puts yearly cancer costs at £5.5 billion in lost productivity due to the time off needed for both patients and their caregivers[ii]. Moreover, new findings[iii] reveal that nearly one third of employee long-term illness claims in the UK over a one-year period between August 2014 and July 2015 were due to cancer, more than any paid for any other medical condition, including musculoskeletal and heart conditions.
When looking at the numbers, it is important to distinguish between absence due to an employee suffering from cancer of any type and cancer whose cause may be related to the workplace itself. However, both share a common, urgent need for employers to prioritise prevention, support and expert medical advice.
Reducing risk, providing access
Unfortunately, for certain jobs exposed to chemicals, radiation or pollutants the workplace itself can pose an increased cancer risk, as confirmed in a global study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, which found that cancer is responsible for 32% of work-related deaths[iv]. In such professions and sectors, employers need to take all necessary precautions to ensure that staff are exposed to as few of these external risks as possible.
Cancer may be caused by external or genetic factors, yet lifestyle is increasingly seen as having an important role and staff require support and reliable advice in order to navigate information and guidelines which confusing or even contradictory. Yet while greater emphasis on early detection and screening is certainly in order, employers need to take a further step, and ensure that staff have access to the best available resources and medical professionals to help them understand their results and make the right treatment decisions, which can be extremely challenging when employees are dealing with family and work pressures.
Being there for employees
Much remains to be done to protect and support employees at all stages of cancer prevention and care. According to a survey carried out in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Poland, just 4% of employees say they have been able to benefit from company initiatives related to cancer. This reality lies in sharp contrast to how employers apparently perceive cancer prevention, with 38% of employers affirming that it is indeed a priority.
Given that the risk of a cancer diagnosis increases with age, ageing workforces in many developed countries mean that cancer in the workplace is and will remain a pressing challenge for employers and insurers for years to come. Providing easy access to confidential, supportive and high quality resources can go a long way in protecting and caring for staff and their families.
[iv] Takala J et al. (April 14th 2014) Global Estimates of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in 2012. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygien. 2014 May; 11(5): 326–337. Published online 2014 Apr 14. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2013.863131