NEBGH: Here's how employers can support cancer patients in the workplace

Cancer diagnoses are on the rise among younger adults, and a new guidebook seeks to arm employers with the tools necessary to tackle this issue.

The Northeast Business Group on Health's new toolkit highlights actions employers can take to proactively address growing rates for five types of cancer in their workforce: breast cancer, colorectal cancer, head and neck cancer, cancer of the reproductive organs and skin cancer.

There's a clear business case for putting a focus on cancer, as the cost of therapies continues to increase and patients often require treatment for the long haul, NEBGH Medical Director Mark Cunningham-Hill, M.D., told Fierce Healthcare.

He said that many employers, especially larger firms, have established sophisticated and comprehensive wellness and health programs for their workers. But they can do more to "connect the dots" between those offerings and critical preventive care around cancer and conditions that increase risk factors, like obesity.

Initiatives like this also can have ripple effects, he said. For each employee that can change their habits or improve their health, they pass that down to children or they drive change in the life of their spouse, for example.

"It's sort of trying to get employers to do what they can around that prevention piece," Cunningham-Hill said.

From that angle, one of the key steps that the guide suggests is that employers evaluate their employee wellness programs and find ways to incentivize healthy behaviors that reduce cancer risk such as weight management, stress reduction and tobacco cessation.

These programs can also incentivize vaccination against human papillomavirus, which can prevent multiple cancers.

That work also requires investing in education and resources that inform people about the risk factors that can lead to cancer, according to the toolkit. Cunningham-Hill said employers will need to specifically target these resources to younger employees, who may not be thinking about their cancer risk given their age.

In addition, employers can take steps to incentivize workers to get needed screenings. These companies can make it easier for employees to get these tests, for instance, by offering time off for medical visits or even on- or near-site screenings for these cancers.

Employers can also eliminate copayments and deductibles for these screenings to make them affordable, according to the guide.

Then, when employees are diagnosed with cancer, it's critical for employers to ensure they have comprehensive benefits available to these individuals, the toolkit says. These firms can connect employees with assistance programs that provide support and access to mental health professionals that can help.

Employers can also offer flexible working options as workers navigate cancer treatment, according to the guidebook.

It's also key to build programs for survivors, according to the toolkit, that support employees in the long term.

"People are living a lot longer, which means that you have to support people in the workplace," Cunningham-Hill said.