Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Cancer, and The Workplace


Approximately 39.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes (National Cancer Institute). It is highly likely therefore that in any workplace someone will be struggling be they employer or employee, and that their struggle has its origins in a cancer diagnosis.

A fifth of cancer patients experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a recent Malaysian study has found. At six months 21% had PTSD dropping to 6% four years on. In the UK, government data indicates 1 in 5 people with cancer report having moderate to serious mental health issues. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates this to be about 530,000 people with cancer and post cancer in the UK.

This is important to note not least because as Danny Bell from Macmillan comments a common perception is that ‘people should feel lucky to have survived cancer’. The reality is that many feel abandoned and left to deal with issues like depression, anxiety, and as the Malaysian study shows symptoms of PTSD. I noted in many instances in my work at Fairfield Independent Hospital and at Spire Fylde Coast Hospital indications of PTSD in clients who presented as struggling at work, in business, and in life and a feature being a life threatening illness such as cancer or heart disease.

Why is this of note for business? Well has been much effort and initiative put into mental health awareness during the course of 2017 from the government Mental Health Task Force and Teresa May’ speech in January to more recent references to the responsibilities of employers to their employees mental wellbeing. This recent research points to vigilance and awareness that a colleague or employee who has returned to work either living with or post cancer may well need support and ‘reasonable adjustment’. This is both a regulatory obligation given the impact of such illness both physically and mentally often prevails for more than 12 months (Equality Act 2010) but also from a business perspective, proactive management of employees’ mental and physical health can produce a range of benefits, including reduction of sickness absence, greater staff engagement and productivity, and reduced staff turnover, recruitment and costs.

Awareness and sensitivity to colleague and employees who may be experiencing difficulty is key to a healthy work environment. The Malaysian study and NHS web pages reference symptoms of PTSD. The diagnosis of such is for the clinician. However being aware of possible indicators is surely helpful and alertness to depression; emotional flatness; anxiety; irritability; uncharacteristic outbursts; sleep problems and difficulty concentrating is merited.

Many workplaces will have strategies in place to help colleagues and employees. Help from external services such as the NHS ‘Mind Matters’ can be accessed via GP services, and private health care providers also provide relevant treatments like counselling, hypnotherapy, CBT, and medication.

Russell Hoyles