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Six key ingredients to an effective cancer prevention strategy for your workforce

February 15, 2023

This guide looks at some of the options for the creation of effective cancer prevention programmes.
Health and Benefits

Every year in the UK, there are 375,400 new cases of cancer. But while survival rates have more than doubled in the last 40 years, from 24 per cent to 50 per cent1, treatment often involves lengthy recovery times, which can negatively impact business operations and productivity. Moreover, even once employees have completed their cancer treatment, they can experience long-term effects such as debilitating fatigue, anxiety, bowel or urinary incontinence, heart or bone problems which can negatively impact their longer-term health and happiness as well as their ability to work.

Most employers have policies in place to support employees who have been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing treatment. However, what is really key to positively impacting health outcomes in the longer term is the creation of effective cancer prevention programmes.

Research shows that 38 per cent of cancers are preventable [1], and in this guide we look at some of the options for reducing risk.

Raise awareness through education

Education is one of the most effective forms of cancer risk prevention, and the workplace is an ideal centre from which to disseminate information.

Cancer is universally recognised as a key health concern in the UK, and there is a wealth of risk-reduction advice, guides and information available. However, a firehose of information can be overwhelming or confusing for some employees, so organisations should guide staff to the most relevant and appropriate resources for their individual circumstances.

Cancer-prevention sessions can be bought-in, with, for example, presentations on symptoms of the disease and how to check for them.

Promoting national and world cancer awareness days and events are further ways organisations can help boost understanding, but this should be in addition to, not instead of, other cancer-prevention components in a corporate health and wellbeing strategy.

Provide screening sessions

The Covid pandemic was responsible for around three million people missing NHS cancer screening appointments in its first six months[2]. Inevitably, tackling the backlog within the NHS has caused delays, delays in which cancer can spread.

Early detection of the disease significantly affects survival rates. Lung, bowel and prostate cancers are among those that may not reveal symptoms until they have reached an advanced state, which reinforces the importance of making screening a priority for a workforce.

Employers should therefore strive to educate employees on the importance of regular screenings, tests and checks, and ensure they are aware that screenings for prostate cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer and cervical cancer are available on the NHS for employees in specific age bands.

Where possible, to supplement the NHS screening programmes, organisations could consider offering screenings as part of their healthcare benefits packages. In some cases, they may be funded under salary sacrifice arrangements. However, the cost-of-living crisis may mean that screenings paid for by the employer, and offered as a core benefit or via a flex scheme, are likely to have a higher level of engagement.

An additional benefit of employer-funded screenings is that there is scope to test for a wider range of the 200 types of cancer that exist. Taking occupational considerations into account, a business that requires extensive outdoor work, for example, might offer screenings for skin cancer.

There are many types of specific cancer screenings available in the corporate benefits market through a host of providers including check4cancer, HCA Healthcare, Bupa, Nuffield and Bluecrest. These cancer screenings are designed to detect cancer at the earliest possible stage, before symptoms are noticeable to the individual, or to assess the likelihood of developing a certain type of cancer in the future.

Organisations that have private healthcare schemes in place should look to promote any fast-track pathways to cancer diagnosis that are available to insured employees if any symptoms are detected.

Identify risk

As physical cancer screening programmes can be expensive, employers could consider offering cost-effective cancer risk questionnaires for employees. These can help identify workers who are at a higher risk of developing the disease. However, access to questionnaires must be accompanied with sensitive advice and guidance on what employees should do if they register as high risk for cancer.

Check4cancer’s MyCancerRisk questionnaire, for example, is designed to detect lifestyle and family risk factors. It takes no more than 20 minutes to complete, and those who do receive access to an information hub that offers insights into the signs and symptoms of common forms of the disease as well as advice on risk reduction strategies and behavioural change programmes.

Those employees identified by the questionnaire to be at higher risk can also be supplied with home testing, or referred to a clinic for tests.

Promoting physical health

Physical inactivity, which often leads to weight gain, has been linked to certain cancers. The sedentary nature of many occupations therefore presents a challenge for employers who are eager to improve fitness levels amongst staff.

Offering subsidised gym membership, running cycle to work schemes, providing lunchtime exercise sessions and promoting the benefits of wearable technology are practical ways of incorporating fitness opportunities into employee lifestyles.

However, simply providing the resources does not guarantee engagement, and incentivisation may be required.

Adding a charitable element can prove effective, especially when fitness is combined with fun. Sponsored team or interdepartmental events, or fundraising health-related challenges such as marathons, swimming, cycling and mountain climbs fosters a sense of purpose.

Organisations could donate to the charity of an employee’s choice should they hit health targets, or they could link health improvements to ESG related incentives.

Smoking cessation

Smoking is the largest single preventable cause of cancer. Although the number of smokers in the UK – 6.6 million – is currently the lowest since records began[3], smoking remains one of the leading causes of cancer.

Apart from the impacts on an individual’s health, there is also a high cost for businesses with smoking sick leave and smoking breaks costing UK businesses £8.7bn a year, according to the British Heart Foundation.

It is illegal to smoke in virtually all work places and work vehicles in the UK, and introducing a smoke-free policy can help insure compliance with smoking legislation. This can be reinforced with ‘no smoking’ signs or posters and the removal of any existing smoking rooms.

For those employees who do smoke, encouragement to help them improve their health by giving-up smoking could come via employer sponsored cessation classes, wearable technology that alerts them to health improvements for each smoke-free day and access to support groups. Providers in the market such as MindCotine offer comprehensive toolkits including the use of VR technology, one to one coaching and digital CBT support via corporate arrangements.

Introducing a competitive element can strengthen willpower in those attempting to give up. Through sponsorship, or a target cash amount, it can also benefit a charity. Stoptober, for example, is an annual event, and an opportune way to launch a company-wide drive, or refocus and reinvigorate former campaigns which have become stale.

Defence through diet

Good nutrition plays a role in cancer prevention. A diet that consists of fruit and vegetables, along with whole grains, beans and other plant-based food can reduce the risk of developing cancers.

Employees may eat up to three meals a day in the workplace, so ensuring such cancer-preventing options feature on cafeteria menus and in snack vending machines is an easily achievable way to boost employees’ defences.

To encourage take-up, employers could arrange presentations or advice sessions from nutritionists to fully explain how and why available food choices could provide protection and ways employees can make manageable changes to their diets.

Educational materials can also help encourage a mindset move so that healthy nutritional choices become a default setting.

Prioritise prevention

With more than 1,000 new cases of cancer occurring every day in the UK and with the cost of new cancer drugs and breakthrough treatments spiralling upwards, having effective cancer prevention practices and policies in place demonstrates a commitment to employee wellbeing – as well as representing a valuable investment towards improving the health risk of the organisation. This will ultimately lead to lower sickness absence costs and lower insurance claims spend.

Prevention really is better than cure.


  1. WTW, Keys statistics on cancer, 2022. Return to article
  2. Cancer Research UK, September 2020. Return to article
  3. ONS, Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2021, December 202. Return to article

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