Going back to work

After your cancer treatment is over, you may have a number of different feelings. When you are ready to think about going back to work, talking to your employer can help. Deciding on a flexible return-to-work-plan can help both of you to understand:

  • how your employer can help you
  • what you are capable of
  • when changes might be needed.

The plan might include changes to your hours, your duties, or your workplace. Depending on your condition, you may have to change parts of your job, for example driving or operating machinery. Your employer must make reasonable adjustments to help you return. This could include changing the requirements of your role, making sure you have suitable access to the workplace, or providing you with different tools.

It is also important to consider your financial situation. Your mortgage or credit agreements may have changed during your treatment. And if you were receiving benefits, returning to work may cause some of them to stop. There are many places to go for advice and guidance about financial issues. Call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 to talk to one of our financial guides.

Returning to work

For many people, going back to work when they feel ready is a big step in their recovery. It can bring back a sense of normality, financial stability, routine and social contact.

You may want to go back to work but still feel nervous about doing your job well or about how people will react. You may still be coping with side effects or difficult feelings. Some people may feel too well to stay at home but not quite well enough to deal with work pressures.

Talk to your family and friends about how you feel so they can support you. Recovery takes time so it’s important not to expect too much of yourself. Try not to put pressure on yourself. Don’t worry if you have one or two setbacks – this is to be expected.

Your employer can do a lot to support your return to work. There are also different organisations that can support you.

We have other helpful advice on life after cancer treatment.

I was off work for six months and I knew I was getting better because I was just itching to get back to work. And it was the greatest day of my life I think – going back to work, being me again, and seeing the look on people’s faces.


Treatment side effects

You may still have some side effects when you go back to work.

Many people return to their usual working life after treatment. But some people may have ongoing treatment side effects which can affect their work life. These are called late effects or long-term side effects and may include:

  • tiredness for months or sometimes years after treatment
  • soreness or limited movement of an arm after breast surgery
  • needing to eat little and often after stomach surgery
  • needing to use the toilet more often after bladder or bowel cancer treatment.

You may need support from your employer to put in place reasonable adjustments to help you.

Agreeing a return-to-work plan

You and your manager can agree on a return-to-work plan. This should be flexible and will need regular reviews to allow for changes along the way. Make sure you’re fully involved in discussions. It’s useful to keep your own notes. You may also want to ask if someone can go with you to meetings for support.

If you’re still coping with treatment side effects you can discuss possible temporary or longer-term changes to help you. You can talk to your employer about reasonable adjustments they may be able to make to help you get back to work. They have to consider this by law.

If your workplace has an occupational health adviser, your manager can arrange for you to see them. You can keep in touch with them until you’re fully back at work.

If there isn’t an occupational health service, Fit for Work may provide you with a return-to-work plan. Your GP or employer needs to refer you to Fit for Work so that you can be assessed first.

If things at work have changed while you were away, you can ask for time or training to catch up. If treatment has affected your ability to drive or carry out tasks you did before, you’ll need to talk about changes to your job.

Making reasonable adjustments

Your employer should consider making reasonable adjustments to help you get back to work.

Some include:

  • a phased return to work
  • flexible working arrangements, such as part-time working, flexible start or finish times or working from home
  • changing your job description to remove tasks that cause particular difficulty
  • allowing you to do ‘light duties’ for a time
  • moving you to a post with more suitable duties, if you agree
  • changing performance targets to take into account the effect of sick leave and side effects such as tiredness.

There may also be practical adjustments your employer can make:

  • extra breaks to help you cope with tiredness and a place to rest away from your desk
  • reserved parking space near your work
  • moving your work base – for example, transferring you to a ground floor office if you’re breathless
  • making sure you have suitable access if you’re using a wheelchair or crutches
  • providing toilet facilities you can get to easily
  • providing appropriate software, such as voice-activated software if you’re not able to type.

Phased return to work

This is an example of a reasonable adjustment your employer may be able to make to help you get back to work. If you can, plan to return gradually and build up to your usual hours. You can agree this with your manager or HR department.

You and your manager can agree on the important parts of your role. You can decide what to focus on until you feel stronger.

You may need more regular rest breaks. Talk to your manager to see what adjustments around this they can put in place. It’s important to try and not do too much too soon, especially if your job involves manual work.

Recovery may not always be straightforward. You may have some setbacks or need more support than you thought. Try to stay flexible and talk to your manager if you need more support.

I had a consultation with our occupational health team. We devised a return-to-work plan, which involved reduced hours building up to when I’d go back full-time. So initially it was only one or two hours a day for the first week and then building up.


Flexible working arrangements

If your job is too demanding to cope with right now, you could think about working part-time or changing your duties or working hours. These are examples of reasonable adjustments your employer may be able to make to help you get back to work.

Talk to your manager or HR department as soon as possible about any possible changes that would help you return to work.

You can agree how long temporary changes to your work should last and how often you review this. Be careful about making permanent changes, such as reducing your hours. You might change how you feel about this later.

What may seem difficult about work right now may look a lot easier in a few weeks or months. Recovery is a gradual process so how you feel now may be likely to change.

I stopped working full-time and I’m now working in a job-share so that I have more time for me. It makes you look at the world and your life in a different way.


Finances when returning to work

Before you go back to work, you may need to think about how this will affect your finances. You can contact Macmillan’s financial guides on 0808 808 00 00. They can help you understand your options.

If your mortgage, bank loan or credit agreement was being paid by an insurance policy, it will end when you go back to work. If you’re thinking of working part-time, check how much you need to cover your monthly outgoings.

You build up annual leave while on sick leave. You could use annual leave during a phased return to work if your employer doesn’t pay full wages. Check if you have income from occupational pensions, private pensions or life assurance. You might be able to freeze, transfer or cash in a pension.

If you have been out of work for a long time, you may have money problems. Some people may be in debt. StepChange Debt Charity can give you advice if you are in this situation.

We have information about managing debt that you may find useful.

If you've been claiming benefits

Each person’s entitlement to benefits has conditions specific to their situation. Going back to work will affect this. Certain benefits will stop but you may still be entitled to some benefits depending on your income. You may need to think about how much you have to earn to make up for the loss of benefits you get now. The number of hours you work could have an effect on your benefits.

It’s important to get advice from an experienced benefits adviser. You can call our welfare rights advisers on 0808 808 00 00. You can also check if there’s a benefits adviser at your hospital. Citizens Advice can give you advice, too.

We have more information about help with the cost of cancer.

Looking for new work or a new job

Looking for a new job after cancer treatment can be a positive sign of recovery. You may decide to return to the kind of work you did before or to have a complete change. Some people look for a less stressful job or one they would enjoy more. Others may decide to try something they have always wanted to do.

If you’re looking for a new job, you may wonder if you have to tell an employer you have or have had cancer. The Equality Act 2010 means employers should only ask questions about your health in limited situations during the recruitment process (see below).

In Northern Ireland, employers are allowed to ask job applicants about their health. But under the DDA, they cannot discriminate against you because of your disability.

An employer can ask you for information about your health after they have offered you a job. If they then decide to withdraw the job offer, this must be for reasons that are non-discriminatory.

An employer can only ask questions about your health before they offer you a job in certain circumstances. This could be to:

  • make sure they are not discriminating against anyone in their recruitment process
  • make sure they recruit people from a range of different groups, such as people with disabilities – this is called positive action
  • check if you need any reasonable adjustments, for example, having your interview in a ground floor room
  • find out if you will be able to do something that’s an essential part of the job.

They also have to think about any reasonable adjustments they could make to allow you to do the job.

Questions related to disability must not be used to discriminate against a disabled person. A possible employer is only allowed to ask questions about your health or disability for the reasons listed above, if necessary.

It’s important not to mislead a possible employer. Giving false or incomplete information that is found out at a later stage could put you in a difficult position.

If you’re pressed for an answer about your health, it may be best to be open about the cancer. But this is your decision. If you don’t get the job as a result of this, you may be able to bring a discrimination claim against them.

You may not consider yourself to be disabled. But if an employer asks if you are disabled, you should say ‘yes’ for the purposes of the Equality Act and the DDA. Everyone with cancer is covered by these Acts and cancer is termed as a disability.

Preparing for an interview

Before an interview, rehearse how to answer any questions about your health. If you are asked about gaps in your work history you can explain you were dealing with some health issues. Be clear you are now ready and keen to get back to work. Emphasise the skills and strengths you have to do the job rather than talk about your illness.

There are different organisations that can help people with a disability to find work. You can find more information at gov.uk (for England, Scotland and Wales) and at nidirect.gov.uk (for Northern Ireland).

Access to Work can also provide someone to help you at a job interview. It can also help people who are about to start a job.

Back to The impact cancer may have on work

Taking time off work

If cancer or its treatment prevent you from working, you may qualify for benefits that can provide some financial help.