haw-week-badgeIt is calculated that, currently, one in three people in the UK will get cancer of one type in their lifetime. Cancer charity Macmillan estimate this will rise to one in two by the year 2020.

New methods used by Cancer Research UK to calculate these figures, however, suggest that the 50 percent level of cancer incidence may already be upon us. A recent survey conducted by Cancer Research UK also revealed that cancer is now the UKs number one fear, ahead of being in debt, old age, being the victim of knife crime, car accidents, having a heart attack or losing a job or home.

This, of course, is not good news for anyone – but some employers may still be wondering what this has to do with them. The fact is, whether employers choose to take action or not, cancer is going to have a serious impact on them, their workforce, and their business. The NHS has identified that around 13,000 men and women die every year from work-related cancer – but the impact is not limited to areas of work that specifically put workers at higher risk. Of the 325,000 people diagnosed with cancer each year, over 100,000 are of working age, and estimates suggest that over 750,000 people of working age are now living with a diagnosis.

Alongside this, we need to consider the friends, spouses and families of employees. One does not have to be personally diagnosed with cancer to be hit by its effects; having to care for a loved one under these trying circumstances – not to mention the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis – can also mean increased downtime among employees who are otherwise healthy.

Little wonder then that the Department of Health is asking employers for help to fight the massive cancer burden. On the positive side, there is a lot that employers can achieve, if they choose to act. The key is cancer screening and awareness in the workplace.


According to a Cancer Research UK report, 46 percent of cancers in the UK are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are far harder to treat successfully. While there are many forms of cancer, just six account for 85 percent of cancer cases: lung, breast, prostate, bowel, skin and cervical cancer. Of these, only breast cancer, cervical cancer and bowel cancer currently have NHS screening programmes, and only those over the age of 60 are eligible for bowel cancer screening. There is a gap in the provision of education and screening which employers are ideally placed to fill, saving lives, offering reassurance to their employees, and safeguarding their business.

Early diagnosis of all cancers would clearly relieve a huge cost burden for the UK – perhaps as much as £210 million – and help to improve the chances of survival for over 52,000 patients. Quite how this would impact businesses themselves has only recently become evident, having been demonstrated by the outcomes of several screenings that HealthScreen UK (HSUK) have implemented for corporate clients.

Hewlett Packard, for example, ran four large-scale campaigns, and fully funded the screenings for its employees and their spouses. Part of this process involved the use of online risk self-assessment resources, which helped target screenings among those who most needed them. 65 previously undiagnosed cancers were detected, many of which may not have been picked up until it was too late to cure them.

Cancer’s impact on business

As far as the business outcomes were concerned, Hewlett Packard found that by-products of the campaigns included a 13 percent rise in employee engagement as well as a reduced cost pressure on their medical scheme. Previously, the average cost of a cancer treatment through a private medical scheme had been around £30,000 per employee, but already their average costs are showing less. They also expect long-term reduction in absence costs, in early retirement costs and life assurance premiums.

In early 2014, Lend Lease – the international property and infrastructure group – offered a skin cancer screening programme for 1,200 employees, most of whom work outdoors. 10 percent were referred for further checks, and they too were expecting a drop in medical scheme costs. Skin cancer checks are now offered as a regular benefit at Lend Lease.

Healthcare in the workplace

Over the last decade, healthcare services have figured highly in employee surveys. Employees are seriously interested in topping up on the excellent NHS services already being provided – and an increasing number of employers have identified the advantageous tax benefits in offering such services. Tax and NI can be deducted for employees and employers can benefit from not paying NI on the services, and some companies have realised that there are system benefits in offering the services as company paid benefits.

The desire among employees for their employers to do more was demonstrated in a 2014 survey by Bupa, drawing on the experiences of 4,000 UK employees and 1,000 UK employers of higher managerial level, as well as 12,800 staff and 862 employers in Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Poland. 38 percent of employer respondents stated that preventing cancer among employees was a priority for their organisation. Only four percent, of employees, however, said they had actually benefited from a health initiative relating to cancer run by their employer, while 16 percent of employee respondents expressed a wish for guidance or information from their employer about cancer, with 13 percent wanting guidance on giving up smoking and 28 percent wanting their employer to provide more guidance or information on exercise. Clearly, employees are expecting more than is currently being delivered. The good news is, employers seem to be recognising the need to deliver.

A recent survey of HR professionals by HSUK on the impact of the cancer on the workplace revealed that an astonishing 95 percent gave their backing to the need for regular cancer checks for all employees (January 2015). If all employers were indeed to act on this, not only would national cancer survival rates undergo a transformation – the overall benefit to business would be incalculable.





Gordon Wishart is professor of cancer surgery, consultant breast and endocrine surgeon and Medical Director of HealthScreen UK.