April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, giving employers an opportunity to open conversations, raise awareness and tackle embarrassment about the symptoms of this common condition (especially among men) as part of their employee health and engagement strategies.
Employee health and wellbeing – breaking down embarrassment around bowel cancer
This month (April) is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, run by the charity Bowel Cancer UK, with fundraising and awareness-raising activities taking place across the country, including around employee health and wellbeing.
Bowel cancer is estimated to be the third most common cancer for men in the UK and the fourth most common overall, with nearly 42,000 new cases diagnosed every year, or the equivalent of 110 a day.
The popular BBC newsreader George Alagiah’s openness about his diagnosis and treatment – and return to work earlier this year – has certainly helped to raise awareness of the condition. Yet it is still a condition where people can be put off from going to see their GP or seeking medical advice because of embarrassment or simply a lack of knowledge about what to look out for.
Embarrassment and ignorance
Earlier this year, for example, a poll by healthcare provider Bupa suggested embarrassment was causing a quarter of employees to delay seeking a formal diagnosis after noticing a potential cancer symptom, with those who noticed changes in their bowel or bladder routines avoiding seeking help for 68 days on average.
Four in 10 people are also unsure of what to check for when looking for common cancers such as skin, lung or the bowel, it has said.
This is where calendar markers such as Bowel Cancer Awareness Month can play their part, not least as Bowel Cancer UK is offering employers the chance to sign up for 30-minute workplace awareness-raising talks during the month.
The fact it is a cancer that affects so many men (although it is not solely a male cancer) is also important, in that awareness-raising can help to engage with and communicate male employee health and wellbeing messages more widely.
Men are often notoriously reluctant to talk about or open up about their health, especially when it is in the context of “embarrassing” parts of the body. Therefore, raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of this disease is important, as is communicating the workplace and occupational health and return-to-work support that your organisation offers.
Remember, too, that cancer does not only take a physical toll; it can have a heavy impact on mental health, both for those going through diagnosis and treatment but also for friends, family and colleagues who may be worried about them and wanting to provide support and help.
Value of EAPs
To this end, access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can be invaluable in terms of offering confidential counselling support and advice but also best practice advice to managers around how to approach and manage what can be a challenging time for everybody.
Bowel Cancer UK offers access to a range of online tools and research as do, more generally, cancer charities such as Macmillan Cancer Research. For specialist employee health return-to-work guidance and support, leaning on your occupational health practitioner will, naturally, be a good idea of course.
As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, says: “The most common symptoms of bowel cancer or bleeding in your faeces or from your bottom, changes in your bowel habit, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness and/or pain or a lump in your stomach area. These are sensitive and ‘personal’ areas. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that bowel cancer can often be something people, especially men, feel reluctant to get checked out.
“But you’ll only know if what you’re experiencing is cancer if you pluck up the courage to go and see your GP or speak to a healthcare professional - and an occupational health professional can provide expert guidance here, too.
“For employers, Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is a great opportunity to kickstart awareness raising and health promotion about this condition, and to engage with male employees especially about health and wellbeing.
“It is also important employers ensure there is a climate within their organisation that supports or enables employees to take the time off that they need to make and attend a GP appointment if they have a health concern,” she adds.