Health and Healthcare Systems

How companies can support employees working with cancer to drive better business and health outcomes

Woman on a laptop, working, unwell, digital supportive care.

Employers can use digital supportive care to help employees with cancer diagnoses navigate uncertainty and stress. Image: Unsplash/Vlada Karpovich

Lynn Koble
Director, Publicis Sapient
Gina Jacobson
Program Director, Working with Cancer, Publicis Groupe
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Cancer has a profound impact on people and the workplace – this often all-encompassing condition requires organizations and employers to create ways to help balance work and life for affected employees and their teams.
  • Digital supportive care services help people dealing with a cancer diagnosis while working – in particular, such tools can help employers and employees navigate fear and uncertainty.
  • Employers can use technology to provide meaningful, personalized support to employees with cancer, creating positive outcomes for both the employee and the business.

Meet Celia. A successful, mid-career accountant at a top firm, she knows how to navigate challenging situations with confidence and poise. But today, in a critical meeting with clients and colleagues, Celia is distracted. Finally, the call she has been anxiously awaiting comes through to her mobile and she steps out of the meeting room to take it.

In the span of a heartbeat, Celia’s world turns upside down as her physician confirms her worst fear: Celia has stage 3 ovarian cancer. Celia’s situation is not unique. In fact, 45% of people diagnosed with cancer are between the ages of 20 and 64 – typical working age.

There has been considerable research published about health and the workplace, and many companies have a real interest in supporting employees in this situation. But there’s a limited understanding of how they can do this – especially in a post-pandemic world where the nature of work and healthcare has shifted significantly.

Helping cancer patients navigate uncertainty and stress

Supportive care isn’t just about medical treatment, it’s about treating the whole person. A patient’s medical care team may engage in supportive care by helping them manage symptoms, make decisions and access psychological, financial or other support services. Supportive care can help cancer patients tolerate treatment, prevent hospitalizations, shorten hospital stays and improve survival rates.

Social relationships across various communities (families, social clubs, places of work or worship) are another source of supportive care. A meta-analysis found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% higher likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. Even the perception of social support increased survival by 35%, according to this research.

As cancer patients try to navigate the immense uncertainty and stress of the journey from diagnosis to posttreatment, technology can help deliver this complementary care that improves health outcomes. In a study of approximately 1,000 cancer patients published by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and led by Ethan Basch, M.D., those who regularly reported health outcomes to their care team through a website experienced a 31% increase in quality of life, a 7% decrease in emergency room visits and a five-month increase in survival rates.

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That’s why, in collaboration with the Duke Cancer Institute, a Publicis team led by Hugo Manassei, GVP Healthcare Transformation, co-designed a connected intelligent supportive care platform and patient-facing app, called Day by Day. It allowed patients to explore supportive care services, report and track outcomes, and receive personalized content and resources.

Solutions like this could also help employees like Celia navigate complicated workplace conversations and intense psychological stress. There is a real need for this: 50% of cancer patients are afraid to tell their employer about their diagnosis, despite 92% feeling that support at work positively impacts their health.

In 2022, Arthur Sadoun, CEO of Publicis Sapient’s holding company, was diagnosed with and treated for cancer. After making his condition public, he received thousands of messages from others impacted by cancer that exposed the fear they experienced, not only for their lives but also for their jobs.

Soon after, Working with Cancer (WWC) was launched by Publicis Groupe – this movement aims to abolish job fear and insecurity for those impacted by cancer or chronic illness. WWC, which has the backing of more than 1,300 companies worldwide, is committed to providing a more open, supportive and recovery-forward culture at work for all employees with cancer.

Most people experience positive support at their places of employment when they face a cancer diagnosis – but fear they will not. Companies can alleviate this fear with official policies and supportive care that closes the gap between expectations and reality.

Designing supportive care for the workplace

At Publicis Sapient, we reviewed academic articles from 40 publications, covering 15 unique research areas and spanning 14 countries to explore the connection between cancer and work. We found six themes companies can use to develop tailored supportive care for employees dealing with cancer.

1. Social support is a key component of health – and of a healthy workplace.

Employees consistently prioritize social support, effective communication and supportive leadership in a healthy workplace. Support at work looks different for everyone, however.

Many employees who are diagnosed with cancer choose to work through treatment, albeit intermittently or with reduced hours. To help employees continue to contribute professionally, employers must create a safe, supportive and inclusive environment. Employees should be able to benefit from the support of their colleagues without fear of discrimination, but still have autonomy over what health information is shared and with whom.

Virtual communities that enable peer-to-peer support for patients and caregivers could also help.

2. Financial stress can be toxic to employee health and workplace contribution.

The financial burden and distress caused by cancer care can lead to negative health outcomes such as skipping treatment. Lost workdays, poor work ability and changes to employment increase the risk of this financial toxicity, as does job lock, which is the inability to leave a job freely due to lack of health insurance portability.

In addition to digitally enabled financial counseling for managing medical bills, employers should evaluate current policies to safeguard against future financial toxicity. This could include short- and long-term disability policies, critical illness insurance, medical procedure prepayment and job and benefits protection.

3. Fear and loss are amplified in the workplace.

Whether actual or anticipated, changes in job performance can contribute to a sense of insecurity, and individuals with cancer are more likely to experience job loss. The double loss of health and employment can create emotional and practical barriers to returning to work.

To support employees like Celia, employers must invest in strategies for workplace flexibility, covering workload and type of work. They must also empower employees with cancer to seek accommodations that meet their needs and enable meaningful contributions without fear of retaliation.

4. Differing perceptions of cancer stigma impact workplace dynamics.

Many people living with cancer see their condition as highly stigmatized in the workplace. One study showed most employers fail to recognize this stigma, however, which is rooted in outdated beliefs about cancer mortality and concerns about work accommodations and recurrence.

It can arise from well-intended decisions that have a negative impact. For example, Celia’s team members removed her from a group text while she was recovering from surgery because she “shouldn’t need to worry about work”. But she felt isolated and compromised by this well-intended exclusion.

Employers can educate everyone about stigma, its impact and the realities of working with cancer via digitally enabled or blended learning sessions, or as a part of regular ongoing manager training.

5. Mindsets are malleable and prime targets for employer intervention.

People with cancer who adopt an adaptive (helpful) mindset, such as viewing cancer as manageable, tend to report a higher quality of life compared to those with a maladaptive (harmful) mindset, who might view cancer as a catastrophe. Having a positive mindset can be influenced through interventions like reframing activities.

Coaching or small group support programs can help adjust mindsets. Publicis’s Day by Day app delivered live, relevant coaching dialogue via its platform, using videos, calls and messaging, for example.

6. Health trauma and identity transformation can lead to growth.

People’s identity and beliefs can transform during their cancer journey. For some, this leads to positive outcomes, like post-traumatic growth. For others, it can have negative effects on their longer term mental and physical health.

Employers must be prepared to support and accommodate transformations in identity and work values that employees like Celia might experience. Again, coaching and group support during the recovery periods or post-treatment can help, as can reskilling the person to a role that better suits their new identity.

Have you read?

As well as helping employees with cancer, organizations could reap benefits like increased retention and productivity from deploying supportive care. It could also help them build a diverse, inclusive culture with stronger leaders and team members who can thrive at work, even during treatment.

These people could also emerge from treatment with greater empathy, an increased sense of purpose and even renewed loyalty to their company. Ultimately, employer support for cancer in the workplace can positively impact health outcomes.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsEmerging TechnologiesWellbeing and Mental Health
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