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.
Returning to work
You may be concerned about how your employer and colleagues 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 take reasonable steps to accommodate the effects of an employee’s illness – 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 a supportive chair.
It’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about your capacity to undertake your usual tasks. Your employer can request a medical examination to show you are fit for work, but does not have the right to request full unrestricted access to your medical records.
Your employer must allow you to return to work if you:
- have a medical certificate saying you’re fit to return to work
- can perform the inherent requirements of your job with reasonable adjustments to the workplace.
Your employer may not have to accommodate the effects of your illness if they can show that any proposed adjustments would result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to the organisation.
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. Job in Jeopardy Assistance is a free government service for people in danger of losing their job because of illness, injury or disability. The program can help with a workplace assessment, job redesign or specialised equipment to help you stay with your current employer. See humanservices.gov.au for more information.
Preparing 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, practice 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 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 as stated by your health care team
- any short-term changes to your terms and conditions of employment (e.g. 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 find out more, see the Australian Government’s JobAccess website. Your state or territory WorkCover or WorkSafe website also has more information.
A cancer diagnosis may make some people reconsider their career goals and work values, and they may decide changing jobs is an opportunity for a fresh start. For some people, returning to the same job may not be possible due to changes in ability or 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:
- Does my illness mean I need to look for a new line of work?
- What abilities and skills can I offer a new employer?
- Will I need to update my skills or education?
- Is there a market for people with my experience in my new 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 (e.g. new equipment or extra breaks)?
- How many hours a week am I able to work?
You may also want to consider different ways of working, i.e. 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 Workplace Advisory Service or a JobAccess adviser on 1800 464 800.
Preparing for an interview
- Consider seeing a career counsellor or social worker to practise your interview techniques. They can also help you identify your strengths, skills and abilities.
- Think about what you may say if asked about a gap in your résumé (CV).
- Keep explanations about a gap in your employment general and straightforward – don’t make up a longwinded story. Some people write ‘career break’ on their résumé. You might want to say that you had a health issue that is now resolved. If you don’t want to say this, you may wish to say you took some time off for personal reasons.
- If you have an obvious physical impairment, consider addressing 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 are asked a direct question regarding your health history, possible answers include “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 don’t get the job and you believe it is because of the cancer diagnosis and treatment, you can make a complaint 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). However, claims are often unsuccessful because it’s hard to prove why the prospective employer didn’t hire you.
Telling a potential employer
While some people may want to tell a potential employer that they have had cancer, you don’t need to unless it may impact on your ability to do the job. You only need to let a prospective employer know about:
- anything that may affect your ability to perform tasks that are an essential part of the job, e.g. 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, e.g. 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:
- 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 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.
"In 2009, 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.
- It’s natural to feel nervous about returning to work after treatment for cancer.
- Seek advice from your doctor about your capacity to carry out your usual tasks and your readiness to return to work.
- A written return to work plan can be a helpful guide for you and your employer.
- Talk to your employer about returning to work part-time or on lighter duties. As your health improves, you may want to ease back into your previous routine.
- Let your employer know about any workplace adjustments you may need to help you carry out the inherent requirements of your job.
- Some people reconsider their career goals following a cancer diagnosis and are motivated to seek more meaningful work or a better work–life balance.
- If you are thinking about changing jobs, focus on the skills and experience you can offer a new employer. Consider whether you want to work part-time, if there is any additional support you might need to help you deal with long-term treatment side effects, and whether you need any additional training.
- You don’t need to tell a potential employer that you’ve had cancer unless it impacts on your ability to do the job.
- If you are unable to return to your previous position, consider attending a rehabilitation or retraining program.
- Be prepared for any questions that potential employers may ask about a gap in your résumé or your health history.
Reviewed by: Carolyn Butcher, Chief People and Development Officer, Thomson Geer, VIC; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Phil Mendoza- Jones, Consumer; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council VIC; Helen Tayler, Social Worker and Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT.