Returning to work after cancer treatment

A succulent in a black pot on an office desk.

Are you worried about returning to work after or during a cancer experience? Polly, one of our Work support advisers, is here to help. In today’s blog, Polly is going to talk about making the decision to go back to work after a cancer diagnosis or treatment, what to consider and how you can get help from your employer.

 If you have any questions around the information in our blog today, please remember that Polly and our team of Work support advisers are available on Macmillan’s Support Line 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday on 0808 808 0000. Just select option 1, then 2, then 3. You can also reach our Work support team over email or live webchat.

Everything can feel daunting when you're making ready to go back to work after cancer treatment. Your life may have been turned upside down by this diagnosis and you may feel nothing is the same after treatment is finished.

Have you seen our booklet, Your Rights at work when you are affected by Cancer”? Please have a look because it gives information about the Equality Act 2010, or the Disability Discrimination Act 1996 if you live in Northern Ireland.

Your employer has the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. This applies when you are making ready to go back to work after sick leave, when you are in work and during the recruitment process.

A lengthy sickness absence from work might mean you feel you’re out of touch with your colleagues. You may feel daunted by the thought of work and you may be living with continuing health problems. There may have been changes in the workplace and you might feel excluded.   

The decision to go back to work will depend on so many factors such as the job you do, how you are feeling and how you are coping with other factors such as a permanent disability, fatigue, or brain fog. It will also depend on your employer’s flexibility and the resources available to them.

Once your treatment is over, returning to work after sick leave might seem feasible. The first conversation you need to have is with your family and with your health professional. Do they think you're well enough to go back to work? Medical advice is important because your employer may need to be reassured that it is safe for you to go back to work. It can also give you the confidence to ask for changes because you are backed up by an opinion of a medical professional.

Take time to think about your job, rather than focusing on what you can't do write a list of all the things you can do. This will help you get a perspective on the parts of the job you may need help with. Returning to work can feel like the start of returning to normality, which can be therapeutic because it means the recovery of a sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Reasonable Adjustments are defined by ACAS as a change that must be made to your working life or working environment to reduce disadvantages related to your disability. A reasonable adjustment could be flexible working hours, extra breaks to manage tiredness, a new work plan or any other working arrangements which could help. There is no fixed definition of what a reasonable adjustment looks like. What is reasonable will depend on both the circumstances of your job and the needs of your employer. Here are some examples:

  1. Here is an example of a change to the way things are done. P has a sales job which involves a lot of travelling and she is worried that she won't cope with all the driving, but she knows that she can do office-based duties. P’s GP agreed and provided a Fit Note that recommended a phased return and office-based duties. This employer may expect her to return to full duties within an agreed period. This could be three months, which may give her enough time to build up her confidence and her resilience again.
  2. This is an example of a change to the workplace. M works in distribution and worries about how he's going to cope with a stoma discreetly within the workplace. After M spoke to HR and his manager, they agreed to upgrade the disabled toilet and provide M with a Radar Key plus flexibility around the need for breaks. The Law requires the employer to provide adequate toilet facilities and most should have accessible toilets. This solution reassured M and allowed him to manage his condition discreetly.
  3. This person needed someone to help her and she needed equipment. W works in accounts. She has years of experience dealing with figures but doesn't think she can keep up with the huge volume of work she needs to do. She suffers from fatigue which impacts her ability to concentrate and she has peripheral neuropathy and lymphoedema, so she struggles with her keyboard and mouse. W’s manager referred her to occupational health who did a full workstation assessment – providing new hardware and a chair plus a head set which allows her to use voice activated software. The employer also agreed to allocate some of her caseload to another member of the team.

Sometimes the help you need will fall outside what the employer needs to provide. For example, if you have lost your driving licence and you can't get to work without a car then Access to Work can help with grants to cover the cost of transport.

Another way of identifying the support you need could be through your employer’s Occupational Health Service. These services are staffed either by medically qualified professionals or by people with the occupational health qualification, so they are in a good place to advise the employer about support you need.

Please have a look at one of our Macmillan videos which describe the experience of getting back to work after cancer treatment.

Ensuring you have the right support at work is always important, especially when you are returning to work after or during a cancer experience. Would you like to read some more guidance from our Work support advisers? Check out the below questions and answers around returning to work and reasonable adjustments in the “Ask a Work Support Adviser” section on the Online Community:

Remember you can also ask your own questions to our team in the “Ask a Work support adviser” space just by clicking “+New” or “+” next to the group title.

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  • My company were brilliant. I had a phased return to work over a number of weeks. The only real issue for me was that the lift was out of order. I had to climb three flights of stairs - 91 steps in total. I did the stairs with three big pauses cursing and cussing all the way. But I did it and was very proud of myself. Stairs were the biggest hurdle and indicated how fit and strong I was.