October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, while most of us are probably familiar with the disease, we may not necessarily be aware of the extent to which it affects women and men both globally and in South Africa. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, South Africa is ranked 50th on the list of countries with the highest cancer prevalence.
Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of Manpower South Africa, explains that businesses have an important role to play in supporting those diagnosed with and fighting against the disease.
“Those diagnosed with cancer will need the support of their families and friends, but many people seem to overlook how important the support of colleagues and management is,” she says. “We spent a large portion of our lives at work, and often identify ourselves through our professions and the work we carry out on a daily basis. Our colleagues, management and bosses often become friends and advisors.”
Among women, the most predominant type of cancer is breast cancer, and statistics show that one in 29 South African women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. This figure is even higher in urban communities in South Africa, where the incidence is as high as one in eight.
The same goes for men.  While most people are aware of the risks of prostate and testicular cancer, many disregard the need to take the necessary steps to detect the disease in its early stages, and to encourage others to do the same. While breast cancer affects only around 1% of men, it was revealed in 2013 that South Africa had the highest male breast cancer rate in the world by a study carried out by the Breast Health Foundation.
Van den Barselaar notes that businesses have a role to play in create awareness around the disease. “There are several ways in which¬† businesses can do this, such as taking part in an awareness campaign, initiating early screening programmes, or educating employees on how to check themselves for the early warning signs of the disease, for example.
“Additionally, counselling services should be availble for those diagnosed and those affected by this,” she says.
Van den Barsellar points out that a job plays a very important role for those diagnosed and living with cancer as it provides normality, routine, stability, social interaction and an income.
However, employers or managers do not always know how best to support their employees diagnosed with cancer. There are challenges to take into consideration when the employee is diagnosed, during his/her treatment, when returning to work and afterwards. To show support, van den Barselaar shares the following tips:
* Be sensitive: It is important for employers to be sensitive towards the topic and towards the employee diagnosed, as every person has a different cancer experience.
* Understand the employee’s individual needs: Employers need to respect the employee’s right to privacy and allow them to make decisions around who to tell and when. The employer and employee also needs to discuss whether or not he/she wants to stay in touch during their time away for treatment.
* Give support: When the employee is open to sharing information with you, it is ok to ask questions to better understand his/her state of mind.
* Organisation guidelines and policies: Employers need to be on top of the guidelines and policies in place within the organisation to support diagnosed employees. This includes sick leave, long-term conditions, financial and occupational health policies.
* Recognise the impact on your team: Employers need to be aware of the impact that an employee’s cancer diagnosis can have on the team and ensure the necessary support systems are available.
* Implement a return-to-work plan: If the employee needs to take time off work, discuss a return-to-work plan as this will help to identify any further support that might be needed before, during and after cancer treatment.
Van den Barselaar stresses that the way an organisation responds to the needs of its employees affected by cancer will have a huge impact on both employee morale and employee engagement. “Remember that each person will have a unique reaction and experience when being diagnosed and treated, and it is important to tailor the support offered to meet the needs of the individual, whilst balancing the needs of the organisation.”