Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Cancer Patients Returning to Work Face a Mental Health Crisis

04 February 2022

New research published today reveals that the majority of working-age cancer patients say that the mental health impact of their treatment is greater than the physical impact. Most feel guilty about taking time off for vital treatment and worry that they are a burden to their colleagues. And while there is a large fall in full-time working for those returning to work, the majority remain the main income-earner in their household.

The survey of 1241 working-age people living with cancer, timed to coincide with World Cancer Day (4th February), highlights the importance of work for most cancer patients but also exposes the challenges many face in returning to, and thriving at, work. The research 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 headlines from the survey include:

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 commented: ‘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.

‘With 1 in 2 people in the UK likely to receive a cancer diagnosis, and half of those of working age, it is essential that employers and healthcare professionals give a higher priority to good employment outcomes for cancer patients. Sadly, fewer than two-thirds of employees with cancer have returned to work or are still working a year after getting a diagnosis, often adding to the mental health and financial woes of many.

’Dr Liz O’Riordan, consultant breast surgeon and breast cancer patient, said: ‘Sadly, I am not surprised by the results of this survey. As a doctor I had no idea that the Equality Act applied to every patient I operated on. When I got breast cancer myself, my own line manager didn’t know. It was only when a desperate internet search led me to ‘Working With Cancer’ that I realised I had rights and could ask for a longer phased return to work.

’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:

The summary of key findings is available to download here 

About IES:
The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) is an independent, apolitical, international centre of research and consultancy in public employment policy and HR management. It works closely with employers in all sectors, government departments, agencies, professional bodies and associations. IES is a focus of knowledge and practical experience in employment and training policy, the operation of labour markets, and HR planning and development. IES is a not-for-profit organisation.

About Working With Cancer:
Working With Cancer helps employees, employers, the self-employed, job seekers and carers to manage cancer and work. The organisation coaches, trains and advises employers on how to successfully manage cancer in the workplace, and coaches and guides individuals affected by cancer on returning to work, remaining in work or finding employment at any stage during or after cancer treatment, including those living with advanced, secondary or terminal cancer. 

Further information:
Steve O’Rourke, IES Head of Communications mobile: 07929 663909