Talking about the Big C: Cancer and work

News articles

DCA members and friends joined us in Melbourne this week to discuss how organisations can create more cancer-friendly workplaces. Hosted by Medibank, this special Diversity Leadership Program event included a panel of expert speakers exploring how cancer can impact work, and what employers can do to support their teams.

With more than 40% of cancer cases occurring in people of working age (18-65 years), it is a disease that affects teams and workplaces everywhere. In Australia, a large proportion of people with cancer (67%) continue to work, and the overwhelming majority of carers (94%) continue to work. Research has also shown that a supportive workplace is associated with higher rates of cancer survivors returning to work.

As our keynote speaker, Dr Anna Boltong, Head of Cancer Information and Support Service at Cancer Council Victoria, outlined the impact of cancer in the workplace as well as many of the common issues experienced by employers and employees. These included communication strategies to enable sensitive and respectful discussion, how to manage the effects of cancer treatment, ways to support a colleague with cancer or for supporting working carers as well as coping with death and bereavement in the workplace.

The audience also heard from Rita Marigliani, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility & Wellbeing at Medibank, about the role that corporate health and wellbeing programs can play in the prevention, early detection and management of a cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as Medibank’s holistic approach to wellbeing and support.

DCA’s CEO, Lisa Annese, said “With so many cases of cancer occurring in people of working age, it is clear that employers play a significant role in supporting their employees who may either be experiencing cancer or supporting someone with cancer.

“Many people, both employers and employees, want to know how they can best support one another in the workplace when serious illness occurs. Not everyone is equipped to know how to handle these situations so it is vital that employers proactively create cancer-friendly workplaces,” said Lisa. 

Key takeaways for creating cancer-friendly workplaces:

  • Ensure open lines of communication, but let the employee lead. This will help to allow them to share as much (or as little) as they want to.
  • Be aware that some of the common physical side effects of cancer treatment including hair loss, weight change and difficulty concentrating or poor memory can impact a person’s day-to-day work life.
  • Employers can support employees undergoing cancer treatment by offering more flexible working arrangements, encouraging rest breaks (as needed) or reminding them about use of the Employee Assistance Program (if available) among other accommodations that can be made.
  • Regular conversations can help to clarify the progress or change in treatment, which may in turn affect the sorts of support required for an individual to continue working.
  • Implement health-promoting policies and work practices through your organisation such as smoke-free workplaces, offering sunscreen in bathrooms or making available facilities to support active travel such as bike racks.

Resources for employers

DCA members can also access a recording of the event via the audio video gallery on the DCA website.