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The mental health toll cancer takes on employees — and how employers can help

Two women have a meaningful conversation

Studies show that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime — and about half are adults aged 20 to 64.1 Those diagnosed with cancer are 5x more likely to experience depression and have double the risk of suicide than those without cancer.2 That means that cancer is both a physical and mental health concern for employees.

Those diagnosed with cancer are 5x as likely to experience depression and have double the risk of suicide than those without cancer.

How a cancer diagnosis can affect employee mental health

When thinking of a cancer diagnosis we often think of the time spent in the hospital, the numerous oncology visits, and the physical effects of ongoing chemotherapy treatments or surgery, to name a few. It’s also imperative to consider the mental health impact a cancer diagnosis can take on a person, their family, and even their colleagues.

Navigating the fear of a cancer diagnosis or of cancer returning, needing to depend on others, and grappling with low self-esteem post-treatment, are just a few of the psychological challenges those diagnosed with cancer or those in remission may face. Daily tasks may require much more energy, meaning employees who once prided themselves on their productivity may require more breaks, need assistance, or flexible working hours.

Studies show:

  • 1 in 4 cancer patients experience clinical depression3
  • People who have been diagnosed with cancer are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to those without a cancer diagnosis4
  • Many people who have had cancer experience symptoms that meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder5
  • Up to 45% of people who have had cancer experience clinically diagnosed anxiety6
1 in 4 cancer patients experience clinical depression

How to support the mental health of employees with cancer

Employers can create a supportive culture around mental health, especially for those struggling with a cancer diagnosis. Ensure that there are flexible and inclusive policies in place for employees diagnosed with cancer, so they feel safe to speak openly and honestly about their needs.

Begin by creating a proactive, company-wide plan to provide employees with flexibility in modifying working hours or responsibilities, medical leave, and programs that support their mental health. This supports employees who may need to take leave, as well as those who might be eager to continue to work as it may provide them with a sense of purpose and normalcy, can boost self-confidence, and aids in much-needed financial stability. Coworkers may also need support during a colleague’s leave of absence for treatment so it’s important for managers to check in with teams to understand how they may be affected.

Each cancer journey is unique so let employees know they are welcome to have an open dialogue and consider regular check-ins to ensure the original plan still works as treatment could become more aggressive.

As a business leader, you can:

  • Ensure employees have access to mental health resources and support groups through the health plan your company provides
  • Offer paid medical leave
  • Allow modified working hours or daily responsibilities
Illustration of a man and a woman talking

Above all, offer your employees a health plan that includes a 360-degree approach to cancer care. This should include access to preventive screenings, integrated virtual care services, and mental health benefits such as therapy, medication, and support groups.

Support employee mental health

Recognize the emotional and mental health toll a cancer diagnosis can put on an employee. Cancer, no matter the kind, is a devastating diagnosis. Even when treatment turns to survivorship, there are lingering mental health effects. As a business leader, you have a unique
opportunity to support your employees during this challenging time.

By looking for a health care partner that offers high-quality cancer care with integrated mental health services, employers can prioritize the health of all employees — especially those diagnosed with cancer.

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  • 1

    Cancer Facts and Figures 2021,” American Cancer Society, 2021; “Emerging Trends in Cancer Care,” National Business Group on Health, October 25, 2021.

  • 2

    Zahra Noorani Mejareh et al., “Global, Regional, and National Prevalence of Depression Among Cancer Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, November-December 2021; Tainya C. Clarke, PhD, et al., “Early Release of Selected Estimates Based on Data From the 2019 National Health Interview Survey,” National Center for Health Statistics, September 2020; Michael Heinrich et al., “Suicide Risk and Mortality Among Patients with Cancer,” Nature Medicine, March 28, 2022.

  • 3

    “Depression,” American Cancer Society, February 1, 2021.

  • 4

    Daniel C. McFarland, DO, et al., “Suicide in Patients With Cancer: Identifying the Risk Factors,” Home Journal of Oncology, June 18, 2019.

  • 5

    “Mental Health Impacts of a Cancer Diagnosis,” National Behavioral Health Network, September 14, 2018.

  • 6

    See note 5.