Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Skill Shortages? Great Resignation? How Retaining Workers With Chronic Illnesses Can Help

Stephen Bevan, Institute for Employment Studies.

At the start of the pandemic there were gloomy forecasts which confidently predicted a rapid rise in unemployment once the furlough scheme ended. Policymakers in government and many employers braced themselves for unprecedented job losses. But to the surprise of many commentators, over two years later, this pessimism has not proven to be well founded. Unemployment remains very low by historical standards and, across the country as a whole, there are now more vacancies than there are unemployed people to fill them.

Looking at the figures in more detail, however, highlights another problem which may have longer term consequences. We now have a crisis of reduced participation rates – that is fewer people looking for work and more people leaving work before retirement. Compared to the situation before COVID-19 there are 1.15 million fewer people active in the labour market and up to 500k of these are people who are living with long term conditions or who have caring responsibilities. In addition, there has been a large increase in people over 50 (especially women) leaving the labour market.

It seems ironic that, at a time when so many employers are facing often crippling staff shortages, we are also standing by as thousands of experienced and highly skilled workers with long term health conditions (including cancer) leave the labour market, often never to return. So why is this happening and what can employers do about it?

For working age people living with or after cancer we already know that staying in or returning to work can be problematic. The work which Working With Cancer does with both individual cancer survivors and their employers has shown that these barriers can be complex but can also be overcome if managers have empathy, flexibility and pragmatism. Two IES research studies conducted during the pandemic have highlighted why this important.

First conducted by IES for the Centre for Ageing Better followed 20 workers over 50 years old who were living with long term conditions, including cancer, to see how their specific needs for workplace adjustments fair treatment and flexibility were being met. Some participants kept journals during the study, and some recorded their experiences on video. Overwhelmingly those whose employers were flexible, non-stigmatising, focused on the capacity (not incapacity) of workers and encouraged compassionate line management were much more likely to have felt valued during the pandemic, to feel that their needs for flexibility were being accommodated and to stay with their employer for longer.

In our joint Cancer and Employment Survey, conducted with Working With Cancer, we also found that those cancer survivors who received support after diagnosis and during treatment, had access to support and flexible working when they returned to work, and received support for their emotional wellbeing were more likely to return to work successfully and to stay longer with their employer. While we found among many of our 1000 respondents that they had been treated with respect and understanding by their employers, a significant minority had less positive experiences. Overall, the percentage of those working full-time fell from 73 percent before treatment to 46 percent afterwards.

Even if a small percentage of cancer survivors feel that return to work is not being made easier by their employers, then this group is destined to become part of the growing number of UK workers with long term conditions who regrettably decide to leave the labour market prematurely, contributing to an immense loss of experience and talent.

I know from personal experience that the road back to work after cancer treatment is not always smooth. It is now 3 years since I returned to work after some unpleasantly invasive treatment or oesophageal cancer. But, even with the ups and downs of working beyond cancer, I also know that a steadfast, empathetic, trusting and flexible employer can make a decisive difference between reconnecting with the purpose and value of work and, conversely, deciding that is all too difficult and opting out of work altogether. If employers who are concerned about a shortage of staff want to retain some of the talent they already employ, then a more proactive and flexible approach to accommodating the needs of employees with long-term health conditions would be a good place to start.