Workplace Wellbeing

How HR Leaders Can Support Employees' Mental Health When Dealing with Cancer

The emotional challenges encountered by cancer patients and their caregivers reveals a complex and often overlooked aspect within the workplace. Learn how HR leaders can play a pivotal role in providing vital mental health support for these individuals.

Written by
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Jeff Dobro, M.D., F.A.C.R.
Chief Innovation Officer at Transcarent
Clinically reviewed by
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A woman dealing with cancer smiling as she's comforted by her caregiver

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    Key Takeaways

    • Serious mental health issues are very common among patients with cancer and their caregivers and family members, are under appreciated and under addressed
    • Establishing a strong support network and seamlessly integrating high-quality care, including mental health services, can relieve a significant burden for employees dealing with cancer and their caregivers, improving outcomes and providing peace of mind
    • Employers play a critical role in helping to shape their employees’ journey from diagnosis to survivorship, including the role of caregivers, and our teams at Transcarent and Spring Health are here to help

    When facing complex and dynamic workplace challenges, HR leaders excel at guiding their teams. But what about employees’ silent battles when dealing with deeply personal challenges like cancer? 

    The emotional and psychological toll inflicted by cancer on patients, their loved ones, and their caregivers is profound and far-reaching. As benefits and people leaders, understanding the mental health challenges accompanying cancer is crucial for supporting the well-being of your people. When you better understand the complexities of cancer care, you can be empowered to create benefit offerings that truly make a difference in the lives of your employees and their families. 

    Keeping the mental health and total care experience simple and connected during this complex time is an important way to help employees navigate their cancer journey. Making it easy for your team to engage in the complete, wraparound care they need—from mental health to everyday care and complex care—can help alleviate some stress and put them on a good path to recovery. 

    The indelible impact of cancer on mental health 

    During the treatment stage, 65% of cancer patients report anxiety symptoms. It’s unsurprising that many survivors also experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even after recovery, the lingering fear of cancer returning can cast a constant shadow over daily life, hindering survivors (and their loved ones) from fully engaging with life again.  

    The stats reinforce the challenges. Forty-three percent of people said they felt unprepared to deal with the physical effects of cancer, such as pain resulting from tumors and surgeries, and 56% said they felt unprepared for the mental side effects experienced during treatment. 

    While cancer alone is associated with reduced productivity, including higher turnover rates, absenteeism, and presenteeism - concurrent mental health issues can exacerbate these challenges for your employees. 

    Facing the possibility of premature death is emotionally overwhelming and can be challenging to process. Additionally, the rigors of treatment, loss of financial stability, isolation due to immunosuppressive medications, concerns over the welfare of their families, and other uncertainties can further exacerbate the emotional challenges of cancer. For many, anxiety remains a constant companion throughout their diagnosis and treatment. Having a trusted, easily accessible resource for care can give your employees the support they need on the journey.

    The emotional toll of cancer on caregivers and families 

    Without an integrated and connected approach to care after a cancer diagnosis, the focus remains on medical issues and treatment protocols. Assessing the mental and emotional well-being of the patient, caregiver, and other family members is often an afterthought or forgotten entirely.  

    While many oncologists and oncology care teams now make a mental health check a routine part of their ongoing patient evaluations, it’s rare that anyone checks on caregivers and family members. With 46.5% of cancer caregivers experiencing anxiety and 42.3% suffering from depression, these individuals are often left to cope with the immense emotional burden of caring for their loved ones without receiving any support or resources themselves.  

    Many people remain silent about their inner struggles, wanting to appear "strong" and shield their loved ones from additional worry. This may feel noble, but loneliness is exacerbated when feelings are not communicated to family, friends, or a trusted therapist.  

    As HR leaders, it is important to acknowledge and prioritize the well-being of often overlooked caregivers through access to mental health resources. 

    The role of HR leaders in supporting employees affected by cancer 

    HR and people leaders can make a difference for team members battling cancer. By building a foundation of supportive resources and trusted high-quality care experiences that are easy to use and integrated with comprehensive mental health care, employers can help alleviate at least one worry for their team members living with cancer and their caregivers. Here are other ways you can help: 

    • Provide expert resources: Empower your employees to be confident that they can easily connect with trusted mental health providers when they need them and be certain that the experience and data will be connected through their entire care journey. Transcarent directly connects employees with the highest-quality care from the nation’s best providers and is integrated with Spring Health’s clinically proven mental health solutions.
    • Create awareness: Many employees and their managers may not be aware of the mental health challenges associated with cancer. Hosting seminars or workshops can bring attention to this issue. Promoting mental health resources across the company is a good idea, as many employees don’t know what help is available.
    • Encourage open communication: Create an environment where employees feel safe discussing their mental health challenges. Encourage leaders to model vulnerability and regularly discuss mental health compassionately and invitingly. 
    • Offer flexibility: Understand that employees dealing with cancer might need time off for treatments or mental health days. Share and connect your people with your FMLA and disability benefit resources and designs. Be compassionate and accommodating.
    • Stay informed: Keep up to date with the latest research and findings on mental health and cancer. Consider reaching out to your care provider to get advice on how you can better support your employees.

    How mental health support can contribute to longer survival in cancer patients  

    Access to a supportive environment and comprehensive mental health care help set your employees on the right path to recovery. Research has found that people with depression, loneliness, and severe anxiety face higher mortality rates, emphasizing the importance of mental well-being in improving overall quality of life and health outcomes. Severe depression increases non-adherence to treatment by nearly fourfold, and for cancer survivors, the risk of suicide is twice as likely as in the general population. 

    Addressing psychological distress through quality mental health care can enhance engagement in treatments, helping your employees better manage side effects and return to life after treatment. Staying on course can also be made easier with access to health benefits that connect your employees to trusted care coordinators who provide caring guidance that can help reduce stress by guiding them toward the next best step in the care journey. 

    The journey through cancer is complex and overwhelming for everyone it touches. Leading with compassion and relying on experts who understand the nuanced care required is an essential first step on the path to recovery. Employers play a critical role in helping to shape their employees’ journey from diagnosis to survivorship, and our teams at Transcarent and Spring Health are here to help.

    Watch the replay of our latest webinar to learn how chronic conditions—like cancer—impact mental health, and discover how to provide access to the care employees need.  

    About the Author
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    Jeff Dobro, M.D., F.A.C.R.
    Chief Innovation Officer at Transcarent

    Dr. Jeff Dobro M.D., FACR – Transcarent, Chief Innovation Officer. Prior to Transcarent, Dr. Dobro was a Partner and the Health Strategy and Innovation Leader at Mercer Consulting and a Partner at WTW leading their population health and provider direct contracting initiatives. Dr. Dobro [KS2] has also operated a national group of 58 primary care medical practices and was Chief Medical Officer at One Medical and at an early ACO management firm.

    About the clinical reviewer
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