Returning to Work after Cancer - An Employers Guide.
Updated: Mar 14
With earlier diagnosis, developments in treatment and follow-up care improvements, there has been an increase in survival rates of cancer patients. The result of which is an increase in the number of those working whilst undergoing cancer treatment or transitioning back into work after treatment is complete.
With an estimated 23.6 million new cases of cancer worldwide each year by 2030, the incidence of cancer within the working population will increase
The number of people of working age surviving cancer is expected to rise, this will see employers called upon more often to provide support to those transitioning back into work after treatment.
Unfortunately, there are currently many barriers in the way preventing people from being able to successfully return to work after finishing cancer treatment.
87% of people employed when diagnosed with cancer say it’s important to them to continue working*
86% of line managers have not had any training to support employees with long term conditions, including cancer*
Only 36% of line managers feel well equipped to support employees with cancer*
(*Data taken from Macmillan research)
Why is returning to work after cancer important?
Being able to return to work after cancer contributes to the overall quality of life. It is well documented that the main benefits of returning to work after cancer include :
Regaining a sense of normality
Having a purpose
Re-establishing personal identity
Reaffirming a sense of recovery
Support from the workplace
Regain control over their life
Tackling financial worries
Returning to work after cancer should be a desirable outcome for both parties.
How can cancer treatment affect those returning to work?
People returning to work following cancer treatment may be experiencing issues caused as a result of treatment and its side effects. These may include :
Cognitive disruption - these include issues with concentration or memory
Loss of confidence.
Mental health issues
Chronic or sporadic pain
Physical mobility limitations
Side effects of medication or continuing treatment
Treatment-induced menopause (often more extreme than natural menopause)
Lowered immune system function
Everyone will be different, so this only highlights the importance of pushing aside assumptions so that an individualised back to work programme can be created.
How can employers help someone return to work after cancer?
Understand your legal obligations
Legally, it is important to be aware that cancer is covered by the Equality Act 2010; understanding this will help you meet your obligations as an employer under this legislation.
It is also important to make your employee aware of their rights, this will ease some of the anxiety that they might have about their rights when they return to work.
Keep the lines of communication open throughout the process
Have that conversation about whether or not your employee would like you to keep in touch whilst they are off work for treatment. Decide together on the best way to do so, being mindful of crossing the line from appropriate support to pressure. Simply asking - ‘what support would you like from us at the moment?’ - can help employees feel valued.
Assuring your employee that they can contact you any time, keeps the dialogue open and allows them to take time off for treatment without the added stress of job uncertainty.
Having an open line of communication allows you to discuss in advance the support that might be needed for a planned return to work. If an employee feels supported, this plays a big part in the likelihood of a return to work and makes this period as stress-free as possible for both parties.
Don’t be afraid to mention 'cancer'
Offering support in an encouraging, empathetic and compassionate way can have a profound effect on the outcome of a successful return to work. Keeping conversations tactful and practicing active listening helps the employee feel less isolated and heard.
Despite the stigma attached to the diagnosis, do not be afraid to talk about cancer if your employee feels comfortable. If you can provide employees with the opportunity to talk about their illness, without judgement or shame, they may feel more confident in opening up about what they are experiencing.
Remember, not everyone will feel comfortable talking about personal issues, but offering employees’ the opportunity to talk about cancer if they wish shows you are not afraid of addressing ‘the elephant in the room’.
If you feel you need extra support on how to do this, contact your HR team or Macmillan for employer advice.
Cancer recovery can be unpredictable so plans should be flexible, allowing for reasonable adjustments along the way. These reasonable adjustments may include :
Flexible working arrangements - including work from home or hybrid options
Alternative job role and/or tasks
Guidance or training to learn new tasks
Flexible working hours
Adaptations to the working environment (personal protective equipment, quiet workspace, updated workspace assessment, reserved parking etc)
Discuss honestly what reasonably and practically could be put in the place to overcome any concerns that either party may have. If you are unable to facilitate certain requests, be honest and address this upfront to avoid later disappointment.
Check in and offer continuing support
Individuals deal with cancer differently, one person’s return to work may be very different to another. This is why it is important to check in regularly to re-evaluate the situation, even if everything seems to have returned to ‘normal’.
Being present and visible, without micromanaging, will enable you to spot the signs of someone struggling to readjust or suffering in silence. This helps avoid presenteeism which is not ideal for either party.
Checking in regularly allows you to keep progress on work well done and offer praise, this goes a long way in helping to rebuild your employees’ confidence.
Remember, checking in is not about signalling the employee out as different, but taking the time to monitor wellbeing, ensuring the work is manageable and checking to see if any adjustments need to be made to the return to work plan.
Pay attention to ability rather than disability
A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing and challenging experience. Recognising the difficulties that someone returning to work after cancer may be experiencing will help ease the transition back.
Your employee may already be self-conscious about being unable to perform at their pre-diagnosis level, so it is better to focus on their current ability rather than to highlight their disabilities.
Having open conversations focussed on their current ability helps manage role expectations, it may also take the pressure off people pushing themselves beyond what they may be safely capable of.
No one size fits all
There is no one size fits all approach to a return to work plan after cancer.
A collaborative return to work discussed openly and tailored to individual needs and requirements will lead to a more successful outcome for both parties.
“When work adjustments are personalized to meet the needs of employees who have / have had cancer, they are more likely to continue working or to return to work”.
Offer support and training for the whole team
‘Cancer’ is a diagnosis that causes a lot of anxiety and we know that it can be difficult to know what to say or do for the best. We know in many return to work situations that talking about cancer is avoided, this only leads to the employee feeling isolated and embarrassed to talk.
Acknowledging the impact that an employee’s cancer diagnosis can have on the whole team, including yourself, is important in nurturing a supportive, open and inclusive work environment. Education is key in breaking the stigma around cancer and giving people the confidence to talk about the topic without fear of causing offence.
If you feel you need more support on how to support your team or someone with cancer, ask your HR department, Occupational Health team or contact the Macmillan Support Line - 0808 808 00 00.
Returning to work after cancer is a desirable outcome.
Changing the narrative around cancer being something to fear allows us to raise the expectations that returning to work after treatment is an achievable outcome.
Having an employee return after cancer is a desirable outcome as it allows you to retain valuable talent and experience and avoids the time and cost of training up someone new.
As an employer or line manager, you may not feel confident or understand your responsibilities in supporting someone to return to work after cancer. It is important that the process is handled with care, so planning ahead ensures that the business feels confident in preparing a return to work in a professional, educated and sensitive way.
If you feel that you do not have the resources needed to facilitate this back to work process, and you would like help or support, you can access advice from a wide range of sources :
Further resources :
Occupational safety and health considerations of returning to work after cancer https://iosh.com/resources-and-research/resources/return-to-work-after-cancer/
Support employees and employers with a robust return to work service https://www.working2wellbeing.com/clinical-services/
Sign up for help and advice for employers/employees from Macmillan https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/get-help/help-with-work/employers/macmillan-at-work
Working with Cancer offer specialised training and coaching on facilitating a return to work after cancer https://workingwithcancer.co.uk/employers/
If you or your colleagues feel you need support, contact the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00
Contact us here at Life after Cancer to discuss how we can support you.
How can Life after Cancer offer personalised support for the return to work process?
Life After Cancer facilitates personalised support for individuals who have finished cancer treatment before and during their return to work. We deliver talks, workshops, support groups and coaching in your workplace to empower both the employee and employer to support individuals to increase their mental wellbeing and return to work post-cancer.
If you are interested in talking to us about offering support in the workplace, you can read more here about our services and how we can help you facilitate a successful back to work after cancer.
"My return to work can be attributed solely to the group coaching programme, which has helped me recover on an emotional level and given me a sense of wellbeing I thought I had lost forever.” - Unilever employee
"In six sessions, Life after Cancer supported me to return to work - I go back in 2 weeks! I was not ready to return to the office before we started working together." - HSBC employee