With World No Tobacco Day upon us, highlighting the perils of smoking, employers and occupational health professionals have an opportunity to emphasise a range of health and employee wellbeing messages, including how unhealthy lifestyle choices can increase your risk of being diagnosed with cancer.

Employee health and wellbeing – links between smoking and cancer can definitely bear repeating

The days of doctors prescribing cigarettes are thankfully long gone. For most of us, the links between smoking, cancer and health and wellbeing will, after decades of medical consensus, now be very clear.

But that’s not so say the battle is won. With World No Tobacco Day taking place on May 31, there is a golden opportunity for employers to revisit, refresh and re-emphasise important health promotion and education messages around the dangers and health risks from smoking.

For example, despite growing public appreciation of the links between smoking and cancer, more than a third (37.7%) of cancer cases each year could still be avoided by making healthier lifestyle choices, including quitting smoking, the charity Cancer Research UK highlighted in March.

Smoking and cancer

Analysis of cancer data from 2015 found that more than 135,500 cancer cases in the UK could have been prevented, with smoking and obesity the top contributors in avoidable cases.

The report – The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015 – found that smoking caused 32,200 cancers in men (17.7% of all male cancer cases) and 22,000 (12.4%) in women, making it the biggest preventable cause of the illness.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “This research clearly demonstrates the impact of smoking and obesity on cancer risk. Prevention is the most cost-effective way of beating cancer and the UK government could do much more to help people by making a healthy choice the easy choice.”

Sir Harpal, of course, could also have made the point that employers and occupational health practitioners can, and do, have an important role to play in this, especially with survival rates now at record highs.

Figures published by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support, too, have calculated that the number of working-age people living with cancer in the UK increased by almost 10% between 2010 and 2015.

Around 80,000 more people aged 16-65 were living with cancer in 2015 than in 2010, with the overall number estimated to sit at 890,000, it said. Yet more than half (53%) did not know their employer had a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for them, such as flexible working hours and time off for medical appointments.

Helping employees with cancer back to work

It is fair to say many employers could do more towards offering more effective employee support pre, during and post a cancer diagnosis, and not just in terms of meeting their legal obligations.

Effective support in this context includes ensuring employees feel fully supported to return to work, essentially fit for work both physically and mentally. Just as importantly, it means ensuring the workplace they are returning to is “fit” for them, not only through physical adjustments but also in terms of attitude, approach or outlook. Occupational health, naturally, has a key part to play in this transition process.

Part of this “responsibility”, too, can extend to helping employees live healthier lives and make better health and wellbeing choices – including quitting smoking – so their risk of cancer is diminished in the first place.

Of course, employers can only do so much in encouraging employees to change or adjust unhealthy lifestyles. The final choice, and commitment, can only come from the individual.

Yet, as Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer argues, employers can have an important role in terms of putting in places the tools, employee support and culture – the health and wellbeing infrastructure if you will – to enable people to make (and stick to) these healthier choices and behaviours.

“The fact it is still relatively commonplace to see smokers sheltering in the cold outside work shows how hard it can be to give up smoking. A long hours, high demand, low flexibility culture can also exacerbate or even encourage unhealthy lifestyles, whether because of stress or simply people eating less healthily or turning to unhealthy behaviours, such as drinking or smoking,” she says.

“Employers, it is clear, cannot force people to live healthier lives, including giving up smoking. That is, and would never be, appropriate. But they can drive home the messages, offer the tools and advice and, if it comes to it, be there with the sympathetic, practical support needed to help employees turn their lives around,” she adds.