Help on returning to work after cancer

Macmillan estimates that more than 125,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in the UK every year, and the number of people surviving cancer will rise by approximately 1 million per decade and reach 4 million by 2040. With more people choosing to work longer, there are likely to be many cancer survivors choosing to return to work. Macmillan have also identified that over 80 percent of those who were working when diagnosed with cancer thought it important to continue working, but 47 percent had to give up work or change their roles as a result of their diagnosis. So helping people to return to work after cancer is an important issue for employers.

In our experience, the desire to return to work is often much more about emotional factors than financial. A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event with long-term physical and emotional consequences. A return to work represents a “reclaiming” of employees from cancer, demonstrating to themselves, family, friends and colleagues that they have regained a sense of normality, identity and importantly self-esteem.

However, financial concerns can also play a part, bills may have mounted up, the mortgage may be behind as a result of time away from work, so a return to earning a salary alleviates some of these worries and allows a return to a more comfortable lifestyle.


Support required from employers

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There are over 200 types of cancer and many different forms of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormonal therapies and targeted therapies. So the effect on individuals can vary substantially, and the physical side effects are not just short-term, many continue long-term and may include fatigue, nausea, vomiting and susceptibility to infection.

Therefore it is important that appropriate adjustments are made by employers, with the most important aspect being true flexibility. This goes much further than simply allowing flexible working hours, it needs to be in every aspect of the job.

In our experience, an open dialogue between the employer and employee is vitally important and can often result in simple adjustments that the employer may not otherwise have considered.

Top tips for employers include:

  • Make sure the employee has the opportunity to take breaks as frequently as they need and have somewhere suitable to rest.
  • Recognise and anticipate that the employee will need more time off work for doctor’s appointments or additional treatment. This is inevitable and employees will feel much more comfortable if this is agreed in advance.
  • Practical matters such as where the desk is located can make a big difference, so being mindful of the employee’s need to have their work area near to toilet facilities, or somewhere suitable for them to store medication.
  • Emotional aspects can be much more heightened for cancer survivors. Their needs, worries and concerns can change dramatically throughout the time that an employee deals with cancer as well as in the aftermath. Employers need to be aware of this and take the time to speak to the employee regularly on a long-term basis to ask how they are getting on and whether there is anything that would help them. Furthermore, employers should recognise that these concerns my change over time.
  • Access to external practical advice and emotional support.


Resources available

Cancer is one of the areas where the NHS really excels, but the focus is usually on the primary illness with the emotional and mental side-effects of the illness often neglected.

These unseen side-effects can be more challenging for an employer to deal with than the physical issues that arise, and in many cases it is territory that can be uncomfortable for both the employer and employee.  External one-to-one practical advice and emotional support from a medical professional such as a nurse can be invaluable in helping employees through their illness and get them back on the road to physical and mental recovery as quickly as possible.

These services are often available from an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or through insurance products such as Group Income Protection, Critical Illness or Private Medical Insurance but can also be sourced directly.

Macmillan provides excellent information and resources for employers and another charity called Working with Cancer provides coaching for employers and employees to manage cancer and work. They can advise employers on how to successfully manage cancer in the workplace and affected employees on returning to work, remaining in work or finding employment at any stage during or after cancer treatment.



Offering employees comprehensive long-term external support both during their illness and in recovery, taking expert advice on managing employees affected by cancer in the workplace and working with the employee to ensure that the workplace is the best it can be for them all leads to a successful and sustained return to work for cancer survivors.

This not only meets the employer’s duty of care but retains the experience and loyalty of staff as well as demonstrating a commitment to the wider organisation that it is a caring and responsible employer.