By KRISTEN B. FRASCH, managing editor of Human Resource ExecutiveŽ, sister publication of Risk & InsuranceŽ and where this article originally appeared
An increasing number of cancer patients are returning to work after taking long-term-disability leaves for treatment.
"Years ago, if you had cancer, you very likely weren't coming back to work," said Robert Jacob, a director of health and productivity for Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Unum, a benefits provider. "Now, with baby boomers (staying in the workforce) longer and with advances in treatment and early detection, the questions surrounding cancer and the workplace have evolved."
Claims data from Unum underscore how times have changed.
From 2001 to 2008, Unum's long-term-disability customers with breast cancer who returned to work went from 47 percent to 52 percent. In the same time span, the number of colon-cancer survivors returning to work went from 23 percent to 30 percent. For prostate cancer, the percentages went from 28 percent to 30 percent.
Perhaps the most telling are the return-to-work rates for Unum's short-term disability claims, which more than doubled from 2001 to 2007, rising from 29 percent to 59 percent.
Indeed, these trends are forcing a national dialogue, Jacob and other health experts said, on how best to approach cancer in the workplace and how best to craft return-to-work policies in the case of serious, chronic disease.
"Clearly," said Helen Darling, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health (NBGH), "it is important that employers educate their beneficiaries about preventable forms of cancer. Moreover, employers need to implement strategies to manage and support employees who are diagnosed with cancer and also provide programs and services aimed at employee caregivers.
"While there is an abundance of information about cancer," she said, "currently, there is a vacuum for the delivery of treatment, prevention and support services associated with cancer in the workplace."
One huge challenge facing disability management and benefits professionals is how best to implement the different types of leave needed to keep cancer patients as productive as possible for as long as possible.
Already, cancer is the second-leading cause of long-term disability and the sixth-leading cause of short-term disability in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. At Unum, cancer has been the leading cause of long-term disability claims for a decade, according to its latest data from 2010.
But with more cancer survivors wanting to return to work, intermittent leave becomes far more crucial for their mental and psychological health, as well as physical, said Darling.
The key, said Jacob, is to remain flexible yet consistent in how intermittent leave is handled and to make sure the psychological impact of the disease is being treated as well. (According to numerous sources, depression and cancer often occur simultaneously.)
The first step in establishing an effective and productive cancer-supportive work environment, he said, is to "determine the drivers and costs and trends--in terms of productivity, presenteeism, intermittent leave--really understanding what that impact is."
Return-to-work programs, handled correctly, taking into account a company's demographics and all other trends and costs, can actually boost the bottom line in terms of productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism and more, he said.
Most of the employers that Jacob consults with, he said, "don't recognize the impact of cancer in their workplace. They can't. They understand it's there, but they don't understand what the true cost is."
As for being cancer-aware, said Jacob, "it varies from employer to employer. Some are more reticent to take cancer people back."
"It's a cultural thing," he said.
Employers ought to making sure managers know what to say to patients and co-workers, that everyone involved knows about their employee-assistance program and that EAP is prepared for the level of psychological counseling that will be needed for all involved--including for employees caring for cancer patients at home.
"What's really important to keep in mind with all diseases, including cancer," said Darling, "is that work can be a balm. Having something else to focus on is a real help, Work becomes a place where the patient can connect with something else besides disease.
May 19, 2011
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