Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer type globally, accounting for 12.5% of all new cases.
Sources estimate that this year alone, 55,720 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with non-invasive breast cancer, while a staggering 297,790 women will get an invasive breast cancer diagnosis.
Although predominantly affecting the female population, breast cancer will also affect 2,800 men a year.
Beyond the numbers, the type, or gender, cancer is a challenging condition that impacts a person’s physical and mental well-being.
While the first is extensively discussed, the emotional repercussions are often dismissed or downplayed. Yet, they can disrupt quality of life, financial and social well-being, and employment.
In recognition of the upcoming Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this Shortlister article explores the employers’ role in supporting workers with breast cancer in the workplace, focusing on specific strategies and accommodations to provide better mental health support.
Supporting Employees with Breast Cancer in the Workplace
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be a turning point in life.
From the overall uncertainty and fear to the physical and psychological effects, the workplace is no exception to the changes this entails.
According to the “Impact of Cancer on Employment” study, 45% of Americans diagnosed with cancer are at a working age. Of those, only 54% reported working full-time.
Beyond financial security, employment is necessary for the person’s wellness during this time. It provides support, a sense of normalcy, distraction, better well-being, and autonomy for the patient.
A study exploring barriers to breast cancer patients working during treatment shows that these aspects make work essential for 76% of respondents. The report further indicates that the majority of cancer survivors received enough support.
However, they also noted that some individuals at work were not as supportive as they would have expected.
While work can provide much-needed assistance during or after treatment, we shouldn’t overlook that remaining fully engaged and fulfilling performance expectations can be challenging.
Depending on the diagnosis and the invasiveness and duration of the treatment, cancer survivors can exhibit poorer health, decreased ability to work, lower productivity, and increased absenteeism. The study on work barriers also shows that patients felt vulnerable and uncertain about their work, with 38% experiencing financial hardships during active treatment.
As a legal, but even more so a moral imperative, supporting workers with cancer in the workplace is a responsibility employers must take seriously.
This support ranges from ensuring financial security, insurance, and health benefits to reasonable accommodation and reducing the emotional impact of the disease.
In this article, we’ll focus on the latter two.
The Emotional Impact of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Cancer can take a huge mental toll despite primarily manifesting in physical symptoms.
Initially published by The Journal of Breast Health, breast cancer research on this matter estimates the prevalence of psychological disorders in patients with cancer to be between 29% and 47%.
Beyond anxiety, uneasiness, or distress, these numbers refer to severe stress disorders, adjustment disorders, depression, and other psychiatric conditions.
What’s more concerning is that the paper also finds a correlation between how they affect the prognosis of the diseases, the constancy and success of a treatment, the patient’s social functioning, and even their survival rate.
An emotional response is to be expected, considering the disruptiveness of a breast cancer diagnosis on the person’s life. Having to put everyday responsibilities on hold or rearrange them to support battling an invasive and life-changing disease is bound to affect a person’s mental health, not to mention the side effects of breast cancer treatment.
It ultimately affects every aspect of their life, including employment.
Thus, discussing how companies can help their workers and offer support is vital. From mental health resources to accommodations and legal protections, the role of a good employer is to ensure a safe and inclusive environment where all its workers are taken care of.
Mental Health Resources in the Workplace
Loneliness is a severe emotional side effect of cancer.
Regardless of why it happens, from self-isolation to societal stigma, it undoubtedly impacts a person’s quality of life.
By developing a cancer loneliness scale, one study correlates social connectedness and the patient’s mental and physical well-being. Results reveal that loneliness can lead to poorer mental and physical health outcomes, setting forth the need for an intervention to improve the patient’s quality of life after a diagnosis.
As a significant influence on their day-to-day life, the workplace should be a safe space for cancer patients and everyone struggling with mental health, helping them feel valued and supported in their journey toward recovery.
In that sense, offering mental health resources ranges from emotional support helplines to support groups and mental health counseling, usually as part of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
EAPs, which are employer-sponsored programs, provide workers with a safe space to process their feelings, fears, and concerns privately. They are especially beneficial for cancer survivors due to their confidentiality aspect since some might not feel comfortable discussing their conditions openly with colleagues or managers.
Beyond their privacy, EAPs offer support groups to reduce the loneliness of cancer. Moreover, they inform, educate, and assist employees in finding additional resources and organizations.
Overall, providing mental health resources for patients with cancer in the workplace is one way to support them.
Apart from EAPs, companies should explore other ways to help their employees, from open communication and reducing stigma to providing reasonable accommodation.
How to Support Breast Cancer Patients in the Workplace?
The American Cancer Society estimates that there are more than four million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., or women receiving active treatment and those who have completed their treatments.
According to the study “Work-related barriers, facilitators, and strategies of breast cancer survivors working during curative treatment,” 80% of breast cancer survivors returned to work after completing their treatments.
However, fewer were working during active treatment. This is no surprise, considering the strain a cancer diagnosis can have on mental and physical health.
Based on the barriers ranging from emotional distress to unsupportive supervisors and co-workers, the report outlines strategies to support breast cancer patients in the workplace.
Work-related processes focused on improving how employees performed their tasks. Some examples include making workplace adjustments, flexible work schedules, and asking for help from others.
Before we discuss specific work accommodations for cancer patients during and after treatment, we must acknowledge employers’ role in creating a safe space for the workforce and their mental health.
1) The Role of Employers & Colleagues
From both a socioeconomic and wellness aspect, employment benefits cancer patients greatly.
Unfortunately, the possibility of working in an accommodating environment or returning to work at all is not guaranteed.
While legal protections and laws ensure equal employment, the employer’s role is to support breast cancer patients in the workplace by providing a safe transition to work and constant support through every stage of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
Apart from providing accommodation and counseling, they are responsible for understanding employees’ needs, raising awareness, providing necessary resources, educating managers, and ensuring all company policies are up to date.
As for colleagues, their role should be to provide emotional support and offer help to reduce work strain.
2) Promoting Open Communication
Often, cancer patients won’t disclose or openly discuss their condition at work.
Whether it’s anxiety, fear, or stigma, this prevents employers and colleagues from reaching out and supporting those battling cancer.
Tackling this issue requires employers to promote open communication and create a supportive environment where workers feel comfortable sharing their experiences, feelings, and needs.
For example, the upcoming Breast Cancer Awareness Month, held every October, can be an excellent initiation for improving communication on this matter and tackling stigma in the workplace.
3) Reducing Stigma & Fostering Empathy
A Livestrong global cancer research study that touched on the issue of stigma shows that this remains a significant problem worldwide.
For example, for 61% of Americans, death is the first thought that comes to mind when they hear the term “cancer,” while 55% believe that “everything causes it.“
These stereotypes can significantly exacerbate the well-being of survivors of breast cancer in the workplace, whether the misconceptions stem from them or their co-workers.
Consequently, the report indicates the need for awareness, education, and communication. These also apply in the workplace, reinforcing the need for education to dispel myths and misconceptions, eventually reducing the stigma.
Promoting a culture of empathy and inclusivity could help employees openly discuss their conditions, leading to better work accommodation for cancer patients.
Work Accommodations for Cancer Patients
Coping with work responsibility after a diagnosis or during treatment can be difficult.
To help their employees continue work without putting additional strain on their physical and mental well-being, companies should make adjustments in the workplace that provide equal employment opportunities and help cancer patients navigate their day-to-day challenges.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers a set of questions for employers to consider before deciding on the best approach and accommodation ideas depending on the limitation or work-related function.
Ultimately, what they decide depends on the individual, but work accommodations for cancer patients can range from flexible work arrangements to support groups and networks.
1) Flexible Work Arrangements & Their Impact
Women are most affected by breast cancer.
At the same time, they remain the primary caregivers and caretakers, meaning they often have to juggle multiple responsibilities.
So, when they get diagnosed with this disease, returning to work can be challenging.
The added pressure of frequent doctor’s visits, treatment, and the impact this disease has on their physical abilities can interfere with their usual performance.
A study shows that 70% to 80% of breast cancer survivors usually return to work within three to 18 months after a diagnosis. However, the number was twice as high when working for an accommodating employer compared to one that isn’t.
Thus, the best thing employers can do, besides providing equal employment and adequate insurance, is to make flexible work arrangements to accommodate their workforce.
Telecommuting, part-time schedules, remote work, and flexible hours can all support workers balancing their treatment, work, and personal responsibilities.
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2) Balancing Work Responsibilities with Treatment
The effectiveness of balancing work responsibilities with cancer treatment also depends on transparent communication, empathy, and support at work. Promoting a culture of acceptance and open communication creates a safe space for employees to express their needs, including their treatment schedules, assistance with their work, or specific accommodation needs.
By collectively embracing these principles, employees, and employers contribute to a workplace that values health and well-being, allowing individuals to navigate their cancer journey confidently.
3) Managing Stress & Anxiety
To break the cycle and help cancer patients manage their stress and anxiety, employers should facilitate access to mental health professionals as part of their health and wellness benefits or an EAP. Their workforce can also benefit from stress-reduction strategies like mindfulness, meditation, and physical exercise to improve their well-being and work performance.
Managing at least some of these emotions can significantly reduce their mental toll and graver side effects.
With the help of their employer, cancer survivors must also prioritize self-care to maintain their overall well-being and boost their morale. Some ways to practice self-care include getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and staying active.
4) Support Groups & Peer Networks
Finally, an essential aspect of work accommodations for cancer patients we briefly mentioned before are support groups and peer networks.
These communities act as a judgment-free zone where people can share their experiences and get emotional support and practical advice on navigating life and work with breast cancer.
Although they are not a legal obligation regarding reasonable accommodations, employers should provide access to them and encourage workers to connect with these groups.
After all, talking to someone who has experienced or is navigating through the same challenges can reduce loneliness, fear, and even shame, potentially improving the overall mental well-being of cancer survivors.
Legal Protections & Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Caring for employees’ mental health, especially during a challenging time, is an ethical imperative for employers who want a healthy and thriving workforce.
However, there are laws in place that protect employees and their right to equal employment and reasonable accommodation.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a cancer diagnosis may qualify as a disability. That means employers are legally required to make adjustments for their employees so that they can perform their work and access the same benefits and privileges of employment.
The ADA classifies a disability as:
- Having a physical or mental condition that limits one or more major life activities (e.g., caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, standing, speaking, working, and more)
- Experiencing such a problem in the past
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ADA also addresses workplace discrimination regarding cancer patients as job applicants or employees and retaliation against workers who assert their rights under the law. For example, if an employee with breast cancer files a complaint or requests accommodation, the employer cannot retaliate against them in any way.
Some states and local jurisdictions may have additional disability discrimination laws that provide other employee protections.
Understanding and addressing breast cancer and its implications cannot be stressed enough. Early detection, proper treatment, and tackling mental health can all contribute to what can be a life-saving outcome.
As October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, employers should use this occasion to set the foundation for long-term education, better access to resources, and accommodating employees with cancer in the workplace since their positive impact ultimately extends beyond this, improving the quality of life of cancer survivors.
- Breast Cancer Facts and Statistics
- The American Cancer Society, Key Statistics for Breast Cancer
- Impact of Cancer on Employment
- Work-Related Barriers, Facilitators, and Strategies of Breast Cancer Survivors Working During Curative Treatment
- Psychiatric Symptoms and Psychosocial Problems in Patients with Breast Cancer
- The Cancer Loneliness Scale and Cancer-related Negative Social Expectations Scale: Development and Validation
- Cancer Stigma and Silence Around the World: A Livestrong Report
- Women With Breast Cancer Who Work for Accommodating Employers More Likely to Retain Jobs After Treatment
- Stress and Cancer
- Cancer in the Workplace and the ADA
- Americans with Disabilities Act
- Job Accommodation Network (JAN)