Returning to work after cancer: seven steps to success

3 minute read time.

Going back to work, sometimes after many months with relatively little contact with your employer, can be a scary time. Some people’s diagnosis and/or physiology allows them to work during some – or even most – of their cancer treatment so returning to work is less of an issue. But for many, this simply isn’t the case.

So it’s important to formally plan an employee’s return to work a few weeks in advance of them coming back. What does this mean in practice? Here are seven simple steps to success:

1)      Make an appointment to see your employee at work two to three weeks before they are due to come back. Visit them at home if it’s difficult for them to travel or if that’s their preference. At this meeting, discuss the 'reasonable adjustments' needed to support their successful return. You may also need to get advice from Occupational Health and/or your employee’s GP or oncologist about this – with your employee’s prior consent, of course.

The meeting should cover what your employee will be working on when they return. Will they need to take on adjusted duties for a while - for example, if their usual role is too physically demanding? What hours/days will they work, and will they be able to do some work from home, if that’s their preference? Remember that it's important to take things gradually.

2)      Discuss travel arrangements and any necessary adjustments to office furniture and equipment. If your employee is going to work from home for a while, do they have the equipment they need? You can contact Access to Work ( for help with the cost. One thing to bear in mind is that the side effects of cancer treatment and medication can start – or change – some time after treatment has finished. So adjustments may be needed for some time.

 3)      Think about how your employee’s return will be communicated to the rest of their team, the wider organisation, and third parties. Agree with your employee what will be said, when, how and to whom. This should cover why your employee has been away (if they are comfortable sharing this), on what basis they’re returning, and how they feel talking about their cancer. What can be difficult for everyone is that, although many people are happy to talk about their cancer, in the early weeks of their return they can spend large parts of each day updating lots of well-wishers, and this can be quite disruptive. It is worth agreeing in advance how you and they are going to jointly manage this. 

4)      What will happen on day one? Will someone be around to greet the employee and to take them into the office? Will they be sitting at their old desk? If not, you need to let them know in advance and explain why this is the case. 

5)      Your employee may have been away from work for some time so, even if you have kept in close touch, some systems and/or processes may have changed. This means your employee may need refresher training. Some employees, especially those suffering from ‘chemo brain’, may need extra time to learn new systems and processes – perhaps more than would be needed by an ‘average’ employee.

 6)      There will be some basic information to swap. For example, your employee will want to know about their remaining holiday and sick pay entitlement. They may also be interested in other sources of support, for example, rest areas they can use, coaching or counselling services. You in turn will need to know about upcoming scans or other medical appointments and any planned holidays.

7)      You need to ensure there is a regular (eg. fortnightly) review of any arrangements you put in place to check how well they are working. These meetings can be less frequent as time goes on, but they offer a valuable opportunity for you to find out how your employee is progressing. 

All in all, it’s best to be prepared for a few ups and downs in the weeks and months which follow an employee’s return to work after cancer. But if you follow our Seven Steps to Success, you can hopefully help lay the foundations for a successful return.

For more information, sign up to Macmillan at Work. As well as providing employers with free information and resources, Macmillan can also provide training for HR and line managers. You can email us at

Barbara Wilson is Founder of Working with Cancer. For more information, visit