Going back to work after cancer treatment

Going back to work after time off can feel a bit nerve-wracking. Planning ahead with your employer will help to make it a positive experience for both of you. Make sure you focus on having the right support in place – this will make it easier to readjust back into working life.  

When should I go back?

This should be your choice. We know that this isn’t always the case if you have financial responsibilities but as far as you can, make sure you feel physically and emotionally ready.

What do I need to do when I’m ready?

When you do feel well enough, and your doctor agrees, let your employer know. Ask them to set up a pre-return to work meeting where you can discuss your needs and how your employer can help make things easier for you at work. You could also explore a phased return, if you think you’d benefit from this.

Your employer might ask for your consent to get a medical report from your GP or consultant. This will give them more information about your illness and any adjustments they could make to support you. You can ask for a copy of the report and always let your employer know if you only want certain people to have access to it.

Your employer may also seek advice from their occupational health service if they have one. If they do, you may be asked to see or speak with an occupational health adviser, which is a good opportunity for you to discuss any adjustments you think would help you return to work.

Can I have someone with me for the meeting?

It can be helpful to have someone accompany you when you meet with your employer. This could be a union representative (if you are a member of a union), someone from your HR department or a colleague you trust.

This can be useful as you can run through what was said with them after the meeting. There will probably have been a lot to take in, and they might have picked up on some points you missed.

Someone should take notes of what’s agreed at the meeting, type them up and circulate them afterwards. This ensures everyone is expecting the same things to happen and knows what their individual commitment is.

Any changes to your contract should ideally be agreed in writing with you. This could include a change to your working hours, either temporary or permanent.

What if I struggle to do the job now?

Before your pre-return meeting, think about the kind of support you might need at work. All employers have a legal duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ – or changes to the workplace to enable you to do your job.

This means that they shouldn’t discriminate against you because of your illness – like move you to a lower-paid job or penalising you for time off sick. It also means that your work can (and should) help you to manage your cancer, and any after effects.

This could be things like allowing you to work flexible hours, including working from home. You might need extra breaks if you have fatigue. It could mean a designated parking space, or making the environment more accessible.

You might want to send your employer some information in advance, so you’re both on the same page in terms of what to expect.

What if I need time off for treatment or appointments?

If you’re still having treatment or need time off from work for appointments, you’ll need to manage this with your employer. Some employers may be happy for you not to work on treatment days, and may simply agree to reduce your wages according to the number of days you take off.

Other employers may be happy for you to make up the time on the days when you feel better, or allow you to work from home. Make sure you get access to and fully understand your organisation’s policies around sickness and flexible working.

How will my colleagues react?

You might think of your colleagues as friends, especially if your workplace is small and is made up of a close-knit group of people. They might have been there for you through treatment and have a good understanding of what’s going on. Alternatively, you might only have professional relationships at work where it’s not easy to share personal matters. Or it might be a mix of both.

People don’t always react or behave as you’d expect or hope for so you might have to deal with some awkward interactions or questions. Try not to let this throw you – it’s ok to say if you don’t want to talk about it. Or if you do, tell them that too. The main thing is that you feel comfortable setting your own barriers and if you’re struggling, ask your manager for advice.

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