03/12/2013 12:32 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Austerity Is No Excuse for the Public Sector to Fail Employees With Cancer

Around one in five people in the UK who work are employed by the public sector. You could argue that these employers should be leading by example when it comes to supporting staff in both sickness and in health, as their budgets come from the public purse. But the public sector has borne the brunt of austerity cuts - can we still expect it to invest in staff wellbeing when budgets and jobs are being brutally slashed? It may sound counter-intuitive to some, but the answer is a clear yes - and here's why.

Recruiting is expensive. It takes both time and money. Any employer - public or private - that is looking to control costs should aim to avoid unnecessary staff turnover. If someone with a serious illness such as cancer is forced to stop work because they are not getting the support they need from their employer, nobody wins. The person who loses their job loses their income and the myriad other benefits that working provides. The employer loses their skills and experience, is likely to take a hit to staff morale and may risk legal action if their conduct amounts to disability discrimination. And even if that position is ultimately re-filled, the increasingly light public purse may have to start paying out benefits to the person who lost their job - and disability benefits pay out more per person than jobseekers' allowance.

For people with cancer, being able to continue in or return to work can help them reclaim their life from the disease. It can provide a return to normality, restore their identity and self-esteem, and ease financial worries. There is also evidence to suggest it may improve their health in the long run. But at Macmillan Cancer Support we know that people with cancer often face difficulties at work after their diagnosis.

More than four in 10 people who are working when diagnosed have to make changes to their working lives, with almost half of them changing jobs or leaving work. There are more than 100,000 people of working age diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. If the rate of employment among this group is the same as the national average, this could mean around 30,000 people each year will have to cope with changes at work as well as the physical and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. What's more, many of them will have to do so without the support of family or friends at home - around one in four people with cancer face this lack of support during their diagnosis and treatment.

Most employers want to do right by their staff, but some managers may be concerned that they don't know how to support an employee with cancer or may worry that making adjustments to accommodate them may be difficult or costly. The good news is that simple changes can help. Making just one or two allowances could be all it takes to help someone stay in work. Changes such as flexible hours or letting someone work from home can cost nothing. If there is a cost, there are government grants that can help. More than 70% of employers that make workplace adjustments to support staff with disabilities such as cancer find them easy to implement - so there's really no excuse for not making the effort.

Of course, we must remember that everyone's experience of cancer is unique. Although we know most people do want to work after cancer, some will not. But we must support those who do to help them achieve that goal whenever possible - for everyone's benefit.