Employers urged to support wellbeing as cancer screenings fall

Out-Law News | 06 Oct 2020 | 10:54 am | 2 min. read

Large employers have an opportunity to support staff health and wellbeing against a backdrop of delays to screening for health conditions, according to a cervical cancer survivor and legal director at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

Almost one million UK women missed mammograms when breast screening programmes were paused in March 2020, to free up NHS resources and reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading, according to new research by Breast Cancer Now.

NHS England published its 'road map to restoring routine care' in May. However, delays to cancer treatments have continued into the summer. The latest statistics, which were published last month, show the proportion of people receiving their first cancer treatment within two months of using the national screening service was 25.4% in July - double the 12.9% figure recorded in June, but less than a third of the July 2019 equivalent, 85.8%.

Penny Simmons of Pinsent Masons said that employers have an important role to play in individual wellbeing as screening programmes begin again, with a likely influx in demand.

"Organisations employing large numbers of people have the ability to raise awareness and encourage people to prioritise their health and wellbeing," she said. "From providing people with the means to access the flu vaccine to enabling people to take time off for medical appointments, there is still a lot that employers can be doing, even as large swathes of the workforce continue to work from home."

Simmons recently spoke to Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby on ITV's This Morning programme about the importance of women not delaying their cervical smear tests due to concerns about the pandemic. Simmons was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018 following routine cervical screening, and attributes her survival to the UK's screening programme.

Simmons Penny

Penny Simmons

Legal Director

From providing people with the means to access the flu vaccine to enabling people to take time off for medical appointments, there is still a lot that employers can be doing, even as large swathes of the workforce continue to work from home.

Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK's cervical cancer charity, warned last month that women were less likely to seek 'virtual' telephone or video appointments with their GPs to discuss possible cervical cancer symptoms. Research by the charity also found a lack of awareness of the symptoms of cervical cancer, particularly around young women, with almost half of those aged between 18 and 24 who were surveyed believing that vaginal bleeding, the most common symptom of cervical cancer, is normal or expected.

Simmons, who campaigns for the charity, said: "If I hadn't gone for a routine follow-up smear test I would never have received an early diagnosis. I had absolutely no symptoms and there was nothing to indicate that there was anything wrong with me".

"I was incredibly lucky to work for an organisation that truly values its people. When I was first diagnosed, everyone I told at work was incredibly supportive. In those early days, when I could barely get through a day without crying, I couldn't have asked for more support from work and after my surgery, when I was desperate to get back to work, my team was there to check I wasn't pushing myself too hard and too fast," she said.

Simmons said that employee health and wellbeing networks, and regular communications from senior figures in the business focussed on health and wellbeing, had played an important role during the pandemic.

"All of this serves to create an environment where people don't feel worried about requesting time off to go for medical appointments, and take time out to look after their physical and mental health," she said.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Breast Cancer Now is calling for the UK government to commit to investment in NHS cancer services as part of its upcoming spending review. The charity is also calling for governments and NHS bodies across the UK to set out how they will respond to the anticipated influx in demand for diagnostic and treatment services.

Breast Cancer Now chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan said: "That nearly one million women across the UK were caught up in the backlog waiting for breast screening is cause for grave concern as we know that around 8,600 of these women could have been living with undetected breast cancer".

"We understand that the breast screening programme was paused out of necessity due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, but we must now press play to ensure that all women can access breast screening, and we cannot afford for the programme to be paused again," she said.