It’s natural to feel nervous if you’re returning to work after you’ve been away for a while. If you are returning to an existing job, you may want to talk to your employer about a return-to-work plan. Or you may seek a new job because of changes to your capabilities or priorities.
Cancer Council can provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer – see Living Well After Cancer or call 13 11 20.
Going back to work
You may be concerned about how your employer and co-workers will react, and if there will be questions about your ability to perform your usual role. You may consider returning to work gradually, increasing your hours and duties as you become stronger, or you may feel ready to resume your old workload.
All employers are legally required to make changes (known as reasonable adjustments) to accommodate the effects of an employee’s cancer diagnosis – see workplace rights. This may mean, for example, that your employer allows you to return to work in stages, is flexible with start and finish times, gives you time off to attend medical appointments or provides ergonomic work tools.
It’s a good idea to speak with your general practitioner (GP), cancer specialist or an occupational physician about whether you are able to undertake your usual tasks. Your employer can request a medical examination to show you are fit for work or to identify any changes they need to make to accommodate your needs. They don’t have the right to request full unrestricted access to your medical records.
Your employer should allow you to return to work if you have a medical certificate saying you’re fit to return to work, and you can perform the essential parts (inherent requirements) of your job with reasonable changes to the workplace.
Your employer may not have to accommodate the effects of the cancer diagnosis and treatment if they can show that any proposed changes would cause them unjustifiable hardship or that you will still not be able to carry out the essential parts of the job even if changes are made.
If you are unable to carry out your previous role, your employer may offer a rehabilitation scheme to train you for another role. Your employer is only required to offer you a different role if the cancer is work-related.
Work Assist is a free government service for people in danger of losing their job because of illness, injury or disability. You can also call 1800 464 800 for more information.
Preparing to return to work
There are things you can do to prepare to return to work:
- do things that are part of a healthy lifestyle – exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, do enjoyable activities and take time for yourself each day.
- live as if going to work – get up at your regular work time, dress in your work clothes, practise travelling to work and do tasks similar to your work tasks.
- get help becoming work ready – see an exercise physiologist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist or rehabilitation specialist.
Making a return-to-work plan
When you are ready to return to work, contact your employer about preparing a return-to-work plan. A return-to-work plan is a helpful document prepared by you, your doctor and your employer (or a rehabilitation professional) outlining your approach to returning to work. The plan is tailored to your specific situation and needs, and is reviewed regularly. The following points may be included in your written return-to-work plan:
- your job title and location
- approximate date of return to work
- time period of the plan
- your goals and abilities
- a summary of duties
- start, finish and break times
- any specific restrictions or recommendations from your healthcare team (such as time limits for sitting or that you must wear a lymphoedema sleeve)
- any short-term changes to your terms of employment (such as leave, remuneration) as a result of your rehabilitation
- any training needs
- any potential triggers within your role that could create additional stress, harm or prevent your recovery
- details of the supervisors or managers responsible for monitoring progress of the return-to-work plan
- dates of regular meetings to discuss progress and adjustments to the plan if needed.
To see a sample return-to-work plan, download the Job Seeking Workbook produced by Cancer Council New South Wales.
To find out more, see the Australian Government’s JobAccess website. Your state or territory WorkSafe or workers compensation authority website also offers information and advice about workplace safety, workerscompensation, worker assistance programs and returning to work.
A cancer diagnosis may make you reconsider your career goals and work values. For some people, returning to the same job may not be possible due to changes in ability or the length of time away. The desire to reduce work-related stress or seek more meaningful work may also be a motivating factor to change jobs.
Finding a new job
Before looking for a new position, you may want to consider these questions:
- Does my illness mean I need to look for a new line of work?
- What abilities, skills and experience can I offer a new employer?
- Will I need to update my skills or education?
- Is there a market for someone with my skills in my chosen field?
- Would I be happy with a lower-level position or fewer hours?
- Can I afford to live on a lower salary?
- How would I manage the stress of a change in employment?
- Does my confidence need a boost?
- Will I need more support (such as new equipment or extra breaks)?
- How many hours a week am I able to work?
- Will I be able to tell a potential or new employer about my cancer treatment?
You may also want to consider different ways of working, such as job- sharing, volunteering, self-employment, part-time or agency work. Discuss your options with colleagues and referees who are familiar with your work and can be honest about your skills. You could also talk with a career counsellor, Cancer Council’s Legal, Financial and Workplace Referral Services on 13 11 20 or a JobAccess adviser on 1800 464 800.
Preparing for an interview
- Consider seeing a career counsellor or social worker to practise some job interviews. They can help you identify your strengths, skills and abilities.
- Think about what you may say if asked about a gap in your résumé (CV). Some people write “career break” rather than leave the gap unexplained.
- Keep explanations general and straightforward – don’t make up a longwinded story. You might want to say that you took some time off for personal reasons.
If you are asked a direct question about your health history, consider answering: “I had a health or family issue, but it’s resolved now”, “I have no health problems that would affect me performing this job” or “I have medical clearance to perform this type of work”.
- If you have an obvious physical impairment, consider letting the interview panel know how you are able to perform the specific job responsibilities.
- Being up-front with your employer can make it easier to negotiate any necessary modifications to the workplace or time off for medical appointments.
- If you don’t get the job and you believe it is because of the cancer diagnosis and treatment, you can complain to the employer, the discrimination agency in your state or territory, the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman (see getting help and support for contact details). These types of complaints are often unsuccessful as it’s hard to prove why you weren’t hired.
Telling a potential employer
While you may want to tell a potential employer that you have had cancer, you don’t need to unless it may affect your ability to do the job. You only need to let a prospective employer know about these issues:
- anything that may affect your ability to perform tasks that are an essential part of the job: for example, if you can lift heavy boxes or drive a car
- any health and safety risks for yourself or others
- any adjustments you may need to help you do your job, such as an ergonomic chair or standing desk.
There will probably be a gap in your résumé (CV) if you did not work during cancer treatment. Be prepared for a potential employer to bring this up. It’s common for people to have breaks in their employment history because of travel, having children or other personal reasons, so the employer may not ask about it. Your employer does not need to know details about your personal life unless it is relevant to the job.
If you are unable to return to your previous job after treatment, there are still things you can do:
- you may be able to attend a rehabilitation or retraining program to prepare you for another job
- you may be eligible for a payout if you have disability insurance or income protection insurance
- you may consider retiring
- contact Centrelink on 132 717 or visit the Department of Human Services to see if you are eligible for the Disability Support Pension or other payment.
“I’ve been employed with a Commonwealth Government department since 1995.
“When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I told my boss I’d be taking extended time off and wrapped up some work before taking six weeks of sick leave.
“My employer connected me with a workplace rehabilitation consultant who helped create a return-to-work plan for me. The consultant spoke to my doctors and manager and determined my working hours and tasks.
“Because I was having several months of chemotherapy, I started working from home for four hours once a week. Over a year, my hours increased and I worked at home and in the office. If I worked more time than planned, my employer would re-credit my sick leave.
“Having a written plan was a safety net for me. Each month I would forecast the amount of work I thought I could handle. When I felt I should be working more or was anxious about people’s expectations, I knew I could stick to the approved plan and return at my own pace.
“Being back to full-time work is a juggling act because I’m still fatigued and have a lot of appointments, including for my clinical trial. I also have work-related stress – I’ve lost some corporate knowledge because I was out of the loop for a year.
“I’m enjoying being back at work. I know I’m very lucky to have a supportive employer.
“I hope employees know that they can ask for support from their employer – especially a written return-to-work plan. The support from my employer helped me to keep engaged and get back to work when I was able.”
Tell your cancer story.
Expert content reviewers:
Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW