What employers and employees should know about cancer survivors in the workplace

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide according to the World Health Organisation, with a recent Lancet Medical Journal finding that South Africa can expect to see a 78% increase in cancer cases by 2023.

Alexander Forbes research in critical illness claims over the past two years shows that cancer applications are increasing significantly, said Myrna Sachs, head of Alexander Forbes Health Management Solutions.

“Especially in the age category 20-39, 44% and 42% respectively of the applications received were due to the disease, which is high and a real concern,” Sachs said.

“Of the total sample looked at, 37% of all applications were due to cancer”.

South African legislation and cancer

According to South Africa’s Employment Equity Act, no-one may be unfairly discriminated against as a person on the grounds of disability. However, the scope of the act focuses not on the diagnosis but resulting functional fallouts, said Sachs.

“In the case of cancer, depending on the stage, site of the cancer, treatment options employed and presentation of the employee, they may or may not be considered a person with a disability based on the set criteria of the definition of disability,” she said.

Sachs said it is important for employers to be aware that the increasing incidence of cancer in the workforce risks leading to reduced productivity, potentially increased presenteeism, low morale and increased costs of providing cover during sickness absence.

“With earlier detection and improved treatment options survival rates are expected to improve and more people will be able to return to a productive lifestyle at home and in the workplace,” she said.

Returning to work

Sachs said employers should understand that cancer’s effect on an individual depended on many factors including the primary site of the cancer, stage of the disease, age, health of the individual and type of treatments.

“A person declared fit to return to work can still present with constant pain, weight loss, fatigue and nausea. They may still need time off work to attend to medical appointments,” she said.

This means that the implementation of a graded return to work approach may be needed, said Sachs.

She also encouraged employers to conduct a return to work discussion with the employee on their return from sick leave, draw up a return to work plan and monitor this periodically.

“This plan should factor in current medical advice on the employee’s condition and capabilities, assess any potential risks and allow for a phased return to work.”

Sachs said the reintegration process could include potential change of workload, re-allocation of non-essential tasks, allowing for flexibility in start and finish times or if feasible allow working from home.

Burden on caregivers 

Employers should be aware that there is a burden on caregivers, said Sachs.

“Should an employee have a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer there may be an impact on the employee’s productivity and attendance in the workplace.

“To retain talent, some employers are providing paid compassionate leave to caregivers, others are providing case management services which could alleviate the burden on the caregiver.”

Due to stated increase in cancer cases, existing policies should be updated and adapted to equip line managers on what to do, provide information to employees and have reasonable accommodation measures that can be placed for cancer survivors, Sachs said.

This policy needs to be congruent with existing wellness programmes, company policy on absenteeism, incapacity and disability in the workplace, that the company may already have and should not be a standalone policy.

The insured benefit policy should also be taken into account, she said.

What should employees know about cancer in the workplace 

Financial obligations and need are the reason most people have to continue working while receiving cancer treatment.

“Employees should consider taking out insurance benefits that protect against income loss, such as critical illness benefits or an income protector benefit.” if the company does not have this in place already,” said Sachs.

Though an employee is not legally bound to tell their employer on diagnosis, they are encouraged to share it for initiation of reasonable accommodation measures, she said.


Read: Researchers are looking at a uniquely South African cure for cancer

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What employers and employees should know about cancer survivors in the workplace