Managing people

Supporting employees with breast cancer

Breast cancer can affect all of us, directly or someone we know. It’s a likely scenario to come across in the workplace. Read on to find out more.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, a breast cancer diagnosis has increased by 36% in the past decade. Fifty-five Australians a day or 20,000 per year get diagnosed with it. Breast cancer can affect everyone. However, females have much higher incidences. Survival rates have been improving due to advanced treatments and earlier detection. Nevertheless, how can workplaces support employees return to work whilst managing breast cancer?

Historically, few studies on assisting women with breast cancer at work have occurred. A review looked at nine prior studies totalling 5,535 women on the efficacy of workplace interventions to support females with breast cancer.

Spa treatments

Of the nine studies reviewed, one had statistically significant work outcomes between intervention and control groups. The study aimed to assess the effects of spa treatment on:

  • the continuation of occupational and non-occupational activities
  • the abilities of women in breast cancer remission and 
  • cost-effectiveness. 

The results 

The study showed there was:

  • a higher rate of recommencement of work activities in the group
  • a positive effect on the women's ability to perform work activities, and it was cost-effective 12 months after the beginning of the study, and
  • a positive impact on their ability to perform family activities.

The thermal treatment may be impractical as a sole workplace solution as treatment facilities needs to be accessible. 

Multifactor work solutions

The study's success may be due to other factors such as exercise and psychological and dietary advice to participants, more commonly seen in employee wellbeing programs. A recent Cochrane review identified reasonable evidence for multiple rehabilitative approaches in enhancing return to work rates across all cancer types. These factors would not only benefit women managing breast cancer in the workplace but all employees.

According to a Reventure report, two in five employees believe employers understand how to improve employee wellbeing in the workplace. It seems there is room to improve employee wellbeing programs and the return to work needs of women with breast cancer. 

Other findings

The review suggested that interventions targeting a specific concern resulted in significant effects on that specified outcome. Also, physical and psychosocial interventions focused on a holistic range of treatment- and disease-related factors.

According to the review, "it is well documented that treatment and disease-related symptoms such as cancer-related fatigue, cognitive changes, and anxiety can impact on workability and could be targeted as part of an RTW intervention." The aerobic exercise showed significant improvements. 

The study had limited intervention cost-effectiveness. Employees that had the money and spent it on healthcare services tended to have positive results. Awareness and education on the availability of healthcare professionals to assist with symptom management may have contributed. Greater self-awareness could lead to a willingness to self-manage health and seek out appropriate health services. Reduced or self-managed chronic conditions could provide a cost-benefit. 

The best interventions

Thermal treatment, education, targeted solutions, and multifactor approach stood out as the most successful interventions for women returning to work with breast cancer. Physical exercise, dietary and psychological solutions may have further reaching benefits to all employees. 

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