Cancer should not mean the end of your career

Almost 7 in 10 working-aged cancer patients and survivors say that their organisation or manager was supportive during their return to work

COVID-19 has changed the way many of us work forever. The pandemic has inspired both solidarity and innovation.

But when we think about the enterprising business-owner who has converted a container to serve coffee in their community, we must also consider how we can support the worker serving you if they become ill.

When we praise the adaptability of healthcare workers in reaching patients by any means necessary, we must ask what happens if they are given too heavy a workload after a cancer diagnosis.

When we support the carpenter who has taken to selling desks online for the working-from-homers, we must think about how they would get by if their treatment meant they needed to stop working.

Research published on Tuesday by the ESRI, funded by the Irish Cancer Society, reveals that almost half of cancer patients report that their diagnosis has had a negative impact on their career. Meanwhile, just under 4 in 10 cancer patients report that their period of leave was shorter than they would have liked, with financial need being the most commonly cited reason for returning to employment. We hear from patients about the crippling financial toll that cancer is taking on families across Ireland.

But COVID-19 has shown us that we don’t have to accept this as an unfortunate fact of life. Just as it moved to support workers during a pandemic, with emergency measures like the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, Government must act, and fast, to support cancer patients and survivors in the workplace, long after we have put this crisis behind us.

Though our resolve has been tested, the spirit of ‘Meitheal’ so often referenced throughout the first wave of the pandemic, persists.

When we do finally move on from this difficult period, will we as a society ensure that the spirit of meitheal endures and extends to workers with chronic illnesses, like cancer?

There are some essential actions Government could take to equip cancer patients to return to work with the right tools, at the right pace, at the right time.

When it comes to sick pay in Ireland, as one of only three EU member states with no laws for it, we are counted among the sick men of Europe. People in low-paid and precarious jobs are less likely to have a sick pay scheme with their employer. This leaves financially vulnerable people in an even more perilous situation if they are diagnosed with cancer.

We’re pleased to note the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation on this in the near future. However, this has to be part of a wider package of reform that includes new social protection payments for people with chronic illness to attend medical appointments, and new State-run workplace reintegration programmes for cancer patients and survivors, similar to those successfully operated in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Thankfully, today’s report also offers reasons to be positive. Almost 7 in 10 working-aged cancer patients and survivors say that their organisation or manager was supportive during their return to work.

We know from existing research that a phased return, increased communication and flexible work times help cancer patients return to work. Meanwhile, we know that agreeing ‘Returning to Work’ or ‘Remaining in Work’ plans help to prepare both employees and employers for an eventual return, or a changed workload.

Everyone involved in this area must work together, led by patients and survivors, to build on positive practices already in place to make sure all workers feel supported before, during and after their return to work.

In the coming weeks, months and years, we want to apply the combined experience of cancer patients, survivors, family members, healthcare workers, employers and trade unions, to achieve this. In partnership, we believe we can help create clear expectations for patients and employers when someone has to take time off work after a diagnosis, share best practice and foster a culture of open communication and flexibility between employees and employers.

More than two in five cancer patients are of working age. With cancer cases set to double by 2045 and with more people living longer and retiring later, we all need to continue to marry the new spirit of adaptability with the older sense of community, so evident in recent months.

Rachel Morrogh is the Director of Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society.