Return to work following cancer - advice for employers

When supporting those undergoing cancer treatment while still in work and those returning to work, key factors identified as affecting a successful return to work include having a supportive work environment and maintaining regular contact with the individual before their return to the workplace. For those involved in managing people back to work there is a number of relevant sources of information.

Remaining in or return to work after cancer

Return to work (RTW) after cancer may be disrupted by physical and psychological health problems and/or limitations as a result of the cancer and its treatment. Long-term health impairments from the disease or treatment can delay or prevent individuals returning to full capacity. Problems may include disability (e.g. lymphoedema), loss of confidence, fatigue, memory and concentration problems and continuing health problems or secondary health issues which may result in frequent GP or hospital visits. In the longer term, support must be continued to the employee, especially when treatment finishes and when anniversary dates occur. While these may be occasions for relief and joy, there can also be times of worry of recurrence.

The type of cancer will also have an impact on RTW. For example, bladder or bowel cancer may cause incontinence or require individuals to use the toilet more frequently, and stomach cancer may mean that an individual has to eat more often.

Later side-effects from the cancer and cancer treatments can include: heart problems; high blood pressure; lung problems including a reduction in lung capacity; hormone changes, including menopause onset or reduced fertility; bone or joint problems; nervous system side-effects including peripheral neuropathy and digestive problems.

Having a critical illness policy in place that includes cancer can also be helpful for both employers and employees. Essential elements of that policy should include:

  • the importance of respecting the employees privacy and dignity;
  • keeping the employee involved and engaged with the organisation;
  • ensuring the employee suffers no financial detriment;
  • the continuation of any employee benefits;
  • the need to take a flexible approach due to the fluctuating nature of symptoms;
  • continuing to provide access to training and development opportunities;
  • providing information and support to the employee; and
  • supporting the employees co-workers.

Leaflets and factsheets

General information

The Macmillan Cancer Support website is a good source of information and support on work and cancer and the impact cancer may have on work and returning to work.

Macmillan Cancer Support also provides expert training and consultancy services. It has a cancer policy template which can be downloaded.

Maggie’s, together with UNUM, has produced resources including an employer's guide to manage people returning to work.

The content for this toolkit was produced as part of the IOSH-funded research undertaken by the Institute of Occupational Medicine, Loughborough University and Affinity Health at work.