Working during treatment and recovery

If you decide to work during treatment or return to work after it’s finished, there are several options to consider, such as flexible working arrangements and your leave entitlements.

Flexible working arrangements

Under the National Employment Standards (NES) you have the right to ask for flexible working arrangements if you have at least 12 months of continuous service with your employer. Some examples of flexible arrangements are:

  • allowing you to work from home some or all days
  • allowing you to work from another office or worksite
  • changing your start, finish or break times
  • allowing you to vary your hours, work part-time or job-share.

You need to ask in writing, giving details of the change you want and the reasons for this requested change. Your employer needs to accept or refuse your request in writing within 21 days of receiving the request. They can only refuse your request on reasonable business grounds, for example, the changes are too expensive or would cause a significant productivity loss. If your employer refuses your request and you don’t think their explanation is reasonable, you may be able to seek assistance from the Fair Work Commission or the discrimination agency in your state or territory.

"Two days a week, I would have chemotherapy. I scheduled it at 1pm and I would work a half-day and spend the afternoon at home in bed." – Sarah

Your proposed changes should be realistic and workable for you and your employer. Your company isn’t obliged to agree to all your requests – for example, if you ask to work from 8pm–10pm, three days per week, it may not suit the needs of the workplace.

After a few weeks of your new schedule, you can catch up with your manager or human resources department to discuss whether the flexible arrangements are working for both you and your employer. You might want to change the arrangement once you know how the treatment is affecting you, or as you start to feel better.

Managing flexible working conditions
  • If possible, take a few hours off instead of the whole day.
  • Try to schedule treatment sessions so you have more recovery time (e.g. late in the day or before your days off).
  • Explore working from home. Not having to commute may help you feel less tired.
  • Ask your employer if your colleagues can help do some of your work during absences.
  • Write down the plan you and your employer have agreed on, and then both sign it.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, don’t let your performance suffer too much before re-evaluating your work arrangements.
  • If appropriate, reduce your hours or organise job-sharing.
  • Let colleagues know about changes to your work hours.
  • Investigate tools to help you work from home or at your treatment centre, e.g. using a tablet or smart phone to get your emails, copying files to the cloud, or taking your work with you on a laptop.

Types of leave entitlements
Personal/carer’s leave
  • Can be taken when you are unwell or injured, or if you need to care for an immediate family or household member. It used to be called sick leave.
  • Permanent full-time employees receive a minimum of 10 days of paid personal leave each year.
  • Part-time employees receive a pro-rata (proportional) amount of personal days based on the number of hours they work.
  • Paid personal leave is an entitlement for permanent employees only. Casual staff may be able to take unpaid leave.
  • This type of leave is paid at the employee’s base rate of pay.
  • An employer can ask you to provide evidence that you need to take personal leave (e.g. a medical certificate).
  • Unused leave days carry over from year to year (accumulate or accrue).
  • Employees can take as much leave as they have accumulated.
Annual leave
  • Also known as holiday pay.
  • Permanent employees receive a minimum of four weeks of paid annual leave for each year of service with their employer. Part-time staff are paid on a pro-rata (proportional) basis. Some employees, such as shiftworkers, are entitled to five weeks of paid annual leave.
  • Annual leave is paid at the employee’s base rate of pay or at an increased rate (leave loading).
  • Unused annual leave accumulates over time. Your employer can direct you to use annual leave.
  • Annual leave continues to accrue when an employee takes a period of paid leave. Leave doesn’t accumulate during periods of unpaid leave.
  • An employee must apply for annual leave before taking it.
  • An employer must approve annual leave unless the request is unreasonable.
Long service leave
  • A period of paid leave after you’ve worked continuously for the same employer for an extended period of time. This leave may apply after 7–15 years.
  • Generally, long service leave is two months of paid leave after 10 years of service, and one month of paid leave for each additional five years of service.
  • Conditions may vary depending on which state or territory you live in.
  • If you have worked at least five years with your employer and you resign due to illness, you may be entitled to a pro-rata long service leave payment.
  • Long service leave is paid at the employee’s ordinary rate of pay. In some cases you may be able to take a longer period of leave at half-pay.
  • Unused long service leave is usually paid out at the end of employment.
  • Periods of unpaid leave do not count towards continuous service for the accrual of long service leave.
Unpaid leave
  • If you have used your paid personal leave or if you are a casual employee, your employer might grant you leave from work without pay. This is not an entitlement – it is up to your employer to allow it.
  • You may have to use your annual leave before your employer allows you to take leave without pay.
  • Annual leave and personal leave do not usually accumulate when you are on unpaid leave.
  • All employees are entitled to two days of unpaid carer’s leave.

For more information about entitlements under the National Employment Standards (NES), see the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

Leave entitlements

There are several types of leave options available to help you balance work and treatment. The NES outline the rules for several types of paid and unpaid leave, which apply under most awards or enterprise agreements in Australia (see lists above).

Entitlements offered under awards or agreements may be different from those provided by the NES but can’t be less. You should check the terms of your agreement.

Managing your leave
  • If you are a new employee, ask your manager or human resources department if there is a waiting (qualifying) period for paid personal leave.
  • Check with your employer if you can cash out your annual leave and any conditions that apply. This is only possible if your award or agreement says that cashing out is allowable.
  • Give as much notice as possible before taking leave.
  • Combine personal leave with annual leave and long service leave, if necessary.
  • If you don’t have enough paid leave, ask your manager if you can take unpaid time off.
  • Know your rights. It is generally against the law to dismiss someone for taking leave for illness.
  • If you believe your employer isn’t giving you the correct amount of personal or annual leave, check your entitlements. Contact the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94.

Key points

  • You might find it useful to talk to your medical team about balancing work and cancer. Doctors, nurses, social workers or counsellors can give you information about coping with treatment.
  • Talk to your employer about flexible working arrangements. You may be able to adjust your work location, hours or role. Employers are legally obligated to consider all reasonable requests.
  • Re-evaluate your work arrangements once you know how your treatment is affecting you. Discuss any changes with your employer.
  • As your health improves, you may want to ease back into your previous routine.
  • Consider what tools are available to help you work from home.
  • Several types of leave options are available to help you balance work and treatment – check your entitlements with your manager or human resources department.
  • Permanent employees may take personal leave when they can’t come to work due to illness or injury. This is sometimes called sick leave.
  • Eligible employees can also use annual leave, long service leave and unpaid leave.
  • Employers must take reasonable steps to accommodate the effects of an employee’s illness.
  • Cancer Council offers legal, financial and workplace referral services. This is not available in all states and territories – phone 13 11 20 to enquire.

Expert content reviewers:

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.

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