Introducing the invisible talent pool: Supporting Employees Affected by Cancer

by David Shutts, Founder of health charity ASTRiiD and CBI Director for Lincolnshire

On Thursday last week, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) asked me to speak at the launch of its new guide on ‘Supporting Employees Affected by Cancer’.

A former Royal Navy Commander, Vice President of Global Sales and East Midlands Regional Director who has never once set foot in Northern Ireland until this week – on the surface I might seem like an odd choice to speak at the event.

That’s until you understand that on 21 May 2015, just ten days after my 50th birthday, I stopped being all of those things and became David Shutts, cancer patient.

That day marked the start of a difficult journey that would ultimately change my life. Over that summer I’d gone from someone who had excelled in sales roles and even chased submarines around the North Atlantic to someone lacking in self-confidence and unsure of my worth to anything or anyone.

That feeling of worthlessness is at the centre of what I came to Northern Ireland to speak about. It may have taken me a while to realise it but I was still all of the things I had been before. Cancer may have robbed me of energy and a decent amount of my body weight, but it hadn’t invalidated my professionalism, skills and experience. I was still someone capable of making a great contribution and I wasn’t going to let cancer diminish my ambition.

Returning to work was the catalyst for this change of mindset. It made me feel more like my old self and helped give me a sense of accomplishment once again. Once I knew I was starting to make a genuine contribution, I started to feel a bit more positive about my life and the battle that lay ahead. It also provided me with a very welcome distraction from the day-to-day challenges posed by ill health.

Knowing that I’m not the only person with this experience was what prompted me to found the charity ASTRiiD. From speaking to others in a similar boat, and there are a lot of them – Macmillan Cancer Support estimates 120,000 working age people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer every year.

I know that there are many people who want to continue working in some capacity in spite of their diagnosis and that others have already felt the positive benefits of returning to work.

Often these are skilled professionals, with distinguished careers and a wealth of experience behind them. My message to politicians, policy makers, employers and others is simple – don’t write us off just yet. We might have cancer, and we might need a little bit of extra help, but many of us can and are absolutely willing to make a contribution to workplaces across the country.

A little bit of additional flexibility from an employer can make all the difference to helping us achieve this goal and change our lives for the better.

With the UK facing a well-recognised skills shortage, it makes sense to me for employers to tap into this ‘invisible talent pool’. That’s why ASTRiiD aims to play an important bridging role between people affected by cancer and employers.

It helps connect people with long-term and chronic illnesses with meaningful work opportunities, ones which can give them positive focus, and employers with candidates ready and willing to work.

As cancer patients we have come to rely on medical advances and valuable support services. We have drugs that can treat the previously untreatable or offer additional longevity. We have equipment that can promote early diagnosis or assist us in everyday life. We have support services that can help us to cope with our diagnoses and the effect they have on our loved ones.

The only thing I found lacking from this mix was the sense of self achievement that only work can provide – for me that really was the best medicine.

For most employers reading this, the things I have spoken about will seem like a no brainer. Many companies across the UK have worked extremely hard to improve inclusiveness and diversity in their workforces and will recognise that this represents an affirmation or small extension to policies they already have in place.

Unfortunately, as I know from speaking to other cancer patients, policy and practice aren’t always as aligned as we’d like.

That’s why I’m so grateful to the Equality Commission for inviting me to Belfast to share my experience and for launching such a valuable tool to help support employees affected by cancer. This could be an important first step in helping cancer patients to once again experience the dignity of work.

While all patients are different and no two cancer journeys are ever the same, there are a set of common qualities that unite the people I’ve met through ASTRiiD.

They are determined, courageous in the face of adversity, skilled and experienced – the type of people I would be proud to work alongside.

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