Given that cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the UAE, there is a chance that someone in your organisation is suffering from cancer. Which raises the question — can organisations really play a role in reducing the risk of cancer?
Cancer and the workplace
Before we look at how organisations can help combat cancer, it is important to consider how they can contribute to cancer. Some jobs expose workers to environmental hazards, and even shift patterns can heighten the odds that a worker will develop cancer. But workplace cancer risks are much more widespread because many modern workplaces contribute to lifestyles that increase people’s odds of developing cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 42 per cent of cancer cases (and 45 per cent of cancer deaths) are linked to modifiable risk factors, chief among them smoking (and second-hand smoke), alcohol, excess body weight, diet, physical inactivity, exposure to ultraviolet radiation and a handful of infections, including the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Modern office work contributes directly to three of those risk factors — excess body weight, diet, and physical inactivity — so much so, in fact, that experts now talk about the “sitting disease.” How widespread is this “disease”? According to the website Very Well Health, “Research has shown that sitting for as little as 30 minutes at a time without standing up or otherwise engaging in physical activity causes the beginning of a cascade of events throughout the body, a chain reaction that includes poor circulation, inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction (dysfunction of the lining of the blood vessels). This translates, in the longer run, into higher rates of cardiovascular disease, overweight and obesity, and possibly even cancer.”
Cancer-fighting strategies to consider
While cancer is too big for any one organisation to defeat, here are seven ideas companies can implement to help in the fight.
Assess your workplace
If your workplace is smoke-free, focus less on lung cancer. If your employees tend to be overweight or if there’s a high instance of pre-diabetes or diabetes, focus more on diet and physical activity. The American Cancer Society recommends a workplace health assessment to gauge how your organisation’s wellness programmes compare with best practices and peer companies.
Encourage regular screenings
Ensure that your health benefits cover key screenings, such as mammography and colonoscopy, but also ensure that company policy makes screenings feasible. For example, a colonoscopy takes two days (one for prep and one for screening); workers are more likely to get screened if they can use sick days or other non-vacation/annual leave/holiday days and don’t have to recruit someone to cover for them at the office.
Alternatively consider hosting a mobile mammography unit or skin-cancer clinic on-site. This increases busy workers’ odds of getting screened while reducing time away from work. This is particularly important here in the UAE, where Aetna International research found that nearly a third (32 per cent) of UAE respondents say they “don’t have time to be ill at work” and a quarter (25 per cent) cite lack of time off from work as the reason behind their health inertia.
Smoking is a leading cause of cancer and in most developed countries, smoking accounts for approximately 30 per cent of cancer cases. Clearing the air — and providing workers with smoking-cessation programmes — is an important way to reduce cancer risk in the workplace.
Make healthy eating easy
If you’re encouraging workers to eat right, be sure healthier options are available in the company cafeteria and onsite vending machines. To promote healthy eating, consider posting nutritional information like calorie counts, making healthier foods the default option and subsidising the cost of healthier foods.
Promote physical activity
Use onsite fitness facilities, discounted gym memberships, and incentives like step challenges to encourage workers to engage in regular exercise. One study found that people who get 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity per week (or double that amount of moderate-intensity activity) have a 31 per cent lower risk of cancer death compared with people who are physically inactive.
Regularly and consistently share tips and advice
Regularly sharing articles and information with employees can prompt them to make small adjustments to their behaviours, gradually helping to improve their well-being over time.
Support mental health — and total well-being — at work
Chronic stress can feed cancer. Making Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provisions for employees to learn about, adopt and practise stress-reduction techniques and strategies — such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and therapeutic counselling — will have far-reaching benefits.
For decades, organisations around the globe have recognised that they have a moral, and often legal, obligation to promote health and safety among their workers. Now, many are realising that the obligation and opportunity extend beyond simply enforcing safety rules and providing hearing protection and ergonomic chairs. In fact, successfully embedding holistic health and safety policies and programmes can play a role in fighting several diseases that plague modern society, particularly the likes of cancer.
References available on request.