Cancer risk increases

Most of us were familiar with the cancer risk statistic: one-in-three of us will get some form of the disease in our lifetime. In early February 2015, the published risk was updated to one in two. Cancer risk has been increasing steadily for decades (it was one in four in 1975) and this is predominantly a consequence of increasing longevity as cancer risk increases with age1. The increasing prevalence of cancer among the population poses several issues for employers.

Financial impact of cancer

This is the obvious impact of an ageing workforce and rising incidence of cancer. Long-term sickness absence causes an issue for employers - balancing the financial wellbeing of the employee as well as the books! Employers, especially in the SME sector, would in many cases like to pay more than the Statutory Sick Pay rate (which stands at a maximum £88.45 in 2015/16) but, in the absence of group income protection insurance, find they are unable to do so. Financial difficulties are more severe where absences are extended over six months or more. A quarter of employees surveyed said they could not provide for their family if they were off for six months or more2.

Cancer carers

An ageing population and increasing cancer diagnoses have a less obvious impact on workforces too as employees find themselves taking time off to support relatives, whether getting them to hospital appointments or caring for them at home. The pressure of juggling work and caring commitments as well as uncertainty of prognosis and financial difficulties can all contribute to stress and affect performance at work. Emotional and practical support can be a great help for cancer survivors getting back to work and for those who are coping with cancer in the family.

Options for support

Support for employees experiencing cancer and other long-term illnesses takes two principal forms – financial assistance and pastoral support.  Financial support can include benefits such as group income protection and group death in service, but there appears to be reluctance among employers to provide it (see our article Myths and legends of Group Risk Benefits for more information). Health Cash Plans are another option providing financial benefits on a smaller scale. Cash Plans and Employee Assistance Programmes can also offer valuable pastoral support in the form of advice and counselling from Occupational Health and other professionals covering a range of issues including debt, health and relationships.

Charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support also provide lots of help and advice for free and the Government has been piloting a new scheme called Fit for Work. This scheme aims to help employers manage sickness absence better, to complement the service GPs provide to patients who are off sick from work and to support employees both at work and off sick. Currently being trialled by GPs in Sheffield, employers and GPs will eventually be able to make referrals to the service across England and Wales. All employees, employers and GPs can already access free, impartial work-related health advice from the Fit for Work website3.

Education vital

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) believes the UK welfare system is based on the flawed assumption that households that will get little or no state support not only recognise this problem but also act to put in place their own safety net. In fact, 10.8 million households (more than 60% of working families) would see their income fall by more than a third if their main earner had to stop work due to ill health. Of these, 6.6 million (about 40% of working families) would see their income fall by more than half4. These households do not have insurance in place to protect them in such circumstances. This highlights the need for education and awareness among employees as well as room for provision of practical benefits. Employers can help to narrow the gap by making sure employees understand exactly what they’ll be entitled to in the event of long-term sickness. And if budget can be found for an income protection scheme, so much the better.


1 Lifetime risk of cancer, Cancer Research UK, 4 February 2015

2 A quarter of employees could not support their family when on long-term sick leave, Group Risk Development, 28 January 2015

3 Introducing Fit for Work, Fit for Work website, 16 December 2014

4 Welfare reform for the 21st Century – the role of income protection insurance, Association of British Insurers, 21 October 2014.

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