Helping your employee to settle back into work

Many employees receive little advice about returning to work at the right time. Finding out about your employee’s needs and making adjustments may be valuable ways of helping them settle back into work. To find out about possible adjustments, employers may seek advice from an occupational health adviser. They can give information about the likely effects of health issues on an employee’s capacity to do their work.

You can support your employee through:

  • Joint return-to-work planning – discuss with your employee the best way of returning to work (for example, flexible working or a phased return).
  • Reasonable adjustments – make reasonable changes to the work environment to ensure a disabled worker is not at a disadvantage on the workplace.
  • Alternative employment – help your employee change roles, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Access to Work – this scheme can support you and your employer to meet the costs caused by cancer (special equipment, aids, travel to work).

Carers also may need support settling back into work. All the suggestions mentioned can help.

When an employee decides to give up work, it’s important to make sure they are aware of the financial implications of their decision. It’s a good idea to encourage them to seek expert advice first.

Considering return to work options

Considering return to work options

If your employee has been away from work having treatment, it can be difficult to know when they are ready to return.

Macmillan’s research into work and cancer found most employees surveyed received little or no worthwhile medical advice about returning to work at the right time.

Many people are left to make this decision alone, based on when they feel it’s the right time to return.

Finding out your employee’s needs

Many employees choose to share their cancer diagnosis with their employer. As a manager, you have no legal right to know the diagnosis or the clinical details of an employee’s condition. In fact, employees have a right of confidentiality under the Human Rights Act 1998.

However, civil law and medical ethics recognise that managers may legitimately seek information relating directly to operational matters. For example, you could ask an occupational health provider for advice about the individual’s health in relation to their ability to carry out their role. This conversation may cover:

  • the likely duration of absence
  • the likely effect health issues may have on return-to-work
  • the likely duration of any health issues that may affect the individual’s ability to carry out their role
  • whether there are any adaptations needed in the workplace to help overcome any disadvantage the individual may suffer as a result of health issues
  • the likely duration of any adaptations
  • the potential impact of health issues on performance and/ or attendance
  • the potential impact of health issues on health and safety
  • if the individual will be unable to carry out their role for some time, whether the individual could carry out alternative roles within your organisation.

Joint return-to-work planning

This is where both you and your employee discuss and agree the best way forward. Cancer can be unpredictable so plans should be flexible, allowing for changes along the way. The possibility of flexible working and a gradual, phased return-to-work are potentially helpful ways of easing someone back into the workplace. It’s important to fully involve the employee in these conversations to ensure it’s a shared decision-making process.

It’s a good idea to schedule a meeting with your employee before they start their first day back at work. This gives them a chance to visit the workplace, hear important updates and raise any concerns. It also allows you to find out how they are feeling and sort out any potential problems before they occur.

Reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act 2010 (England, Scotland and Wales) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Northern Ireland), employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if the location, working arrangements or the lack of extra support (auxiliary aids) put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared with others. People with cancer are considered disabled for the purposes of this legislation and are therefore protected from the point of diagnosis.

What are reasonable adjustments?

There is no fixed definition of ‘reasonable’. What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances, including practicality, cost, the extent to which the adjustment will be effective in alleviating any disadvantage, and the extent to which business may be disrupted.

An employer will not be obliged to make reasonable adjustments unless they know or ought to reasonably know that the individual is disabled.

Any planned adjustments should be discussed with and approved by the employee concerned.

Reasonable adjustments for someone with cancer may include:

  • Allowing a phased return to work.
  • letting them take time off to attend medical appointments, which may already be covered by your existing policies
  • modifying a job description to remove tasks that cause particular difficulty – either on a temporary or permanent basis
  • being flexible around working hours or offering the option to work from home
  • allowing extra breaks to help them cope with fatigue
  • adjusting performance targets to take into account the effect of sick leave/fatigue etc on the employee, or giving them a role with more suitable duties
  • moving a work station, for example, to avoid stairs
  • ensuring easy access to premises for someone who is using a wheelchair or crutches
  • providing disabled toilet facilities
  • changing the date or time of a job interview if it coincides with a medical appointment. Just one or two little changes could be all it takes to help an employee stay in work.

Phased return-to-work

Allowing a gradual, phased return-to-work is another adjustment you can make. Research commissioned by Macmillan has shown that a phased return-to-work is an important predictor of a successful adjustment back to work.

Agreeing a lighter workload or using holiday entitlement accrued during time off to shorten the working week could be one way of doing this.

Changes to the work environment

Reasonable adjustments can involve making changes to the work environment. For example:

  • Is mobility is a problem? If so, having a car parking space closer to the entrance is helpful.
  • Are there any issues with accessibility that should be considered and, if so, what changes would it be reasonable to make?
  • Does your employee need different equipment or a change in the location of their workstation? For example, you may need to move a workstation to avoid stairs. A professional assessment can help with this – seek advice from an occupational health adviser (see above).

Making work adjustments for an employee being affected by cancer

Showing how one employer made temporary changes to an employee’s work duties to help them remain in work during treatment for cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Making work adjustments for an employee being affected by cancer

Showing how one employer made temporary changes to an employee’s work duties to help them remain in work during treatment for cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Access to work

The Access to Work scheme can help if a person’s long-term health condition affects the way they do their job. It gives employees and employers advice and support to meet the additional costs that may arise because of the employee’s health condition.

The scheme may pay for special aids and equipment needed in the workplace as a direct result of the employee’s condition, travel to work if the employee can’t use public transport, or a support worker.

The Employers’ guide to Access to Work is available to download.

To find out more about Access to Work in Northern Ireland, contact an Employment Service Adviser in your local Jobs and Benefits Office or JobCentre, or visit

Other ways you can help

You can take many practical steps to help your employee meet their potential at work. Here are some key examples:

  • Be there on their first day, or failing that, make sure you phone in. Make sure the rest of the team are expecting them, adding to the welcome.
  • Meet at the start of the day to discuss their work plan and handover arrangements. This is another opportunity to check for concerns they may have.
  • Arrange a smooth handover. Make sure they don’t come back to a mountain of work and emails. Spread the work out so everything doesn’t land on them at once.
  • Help them feel part of the team again. Treat all your employees equally to ensure everyone knows arrangements are fair and to avoid resentment.
  • Agree a regular review process with your employee. This way, you can monitor their progress, ensure their workload is manageable and make any necessary adjustments to help them succeed.
  • Make sure they are taking breaks and that they are not over-working.
  • Consider a health and safety assessment, especially if there has been a change in duties or working arrangements. If they are working from home, you should assess this environment for health and safety too.
  • Signpost to sources of information and further support. There are useful organisations here to help you and you can search for them on our website..You can suggest talking to an occupational health or HR professional if this is possible in your organisation. If your employee benefits plan includes access to a confidential counselling service, you can let them know this is available.
  • Plan for occasional future absences. These may be due to medical appointments or because your employee, or the person they care for, is not feeling well. Fatigue can persist long after cancer treatment has been completed.

These tips can ensure a smooth handover of work:

  • Make sure your employee doesn’t return to an unmanageable amount of work and emails. Spread the work out so everything isn’t given to them at once.
  • Try to break tasks down into smaller steps to make the job more manageable and encourage a sense of achievement.
  • Prioritise duties so your employee knows what the most important tasks are. They’ll have a greater sense of control and achievement. This will also ensure the needs of the job are met.
  • Reallocate or change work duties. Manage this sensitively, so colleagues don’t feel overburdened, and reassure the person with cancer that this is temporary and not designed to undermine them or their work.
  • Adjust performance targets temporarily so they remain realistic for your employee.

Alternative employment

Suitable alternative employment may be an option if, despite best efforts, your employee is unable to fulfil their role. If the situation is likely to change in the future, this can be offered on a temporary basis with an agreed date for review.

Remember, changes to your employee’s working conditions can be temporary or permanent and may have an impact on their terms of employment.

Before any substantial changes are agreed, make sure the employee is completely clear on what the changes mean.

Review your organisation’s policies to find out what support can be offered. Any substantial and/or permanent changes should be confirmed in writing, and your employee should sign this document to indicate their agreement to the change.

These measures don’t have to be expensive or disruptive. Many of these ideas are just common sense. Sometimes, small changes can make a big difference for your employee.


Most of the points above can also apply to carers. However, carers may have additional difficulties re-entering the workforce, particularly if they have been bereaved. Their confidence and skills may have been affected by absence from work, and they may also have emotional and practical issues to deal with following the death of a loved one. A carer may require professional help in overcoming these issues, although some people may want to work through problems themselves.

Supporting carers

Real examples of how people were supported by their employers when they were looking after someone with cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Supporting carers

Real examples of how people were supported by their employers when they were looking after someone with cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Leaving work

If your employee wants to resign, it’s important to understand their reasons. Sometimes important decisions are made when emotions are at an all-time low. Additional support and an explanation of all the options may lead to a different decision – and help you retain a valued member of staff. Of course, for some people, leaving work is the best choice. If that is their decision, make sure your organisation’s leaving procedures are followed.

Stopping work because of cancer can have serious financial implications. Resigning or retiring early can change a person’s entitlement to state benefits, pensions and insurance. It’s a complex area and every person’s situation is unique. Because so much is at stake, encourage your employee to seek expert advice and establish what their position is, before any formal action is taken on either side.

Back to If you're an employer

Policies and resources

If one of your employees has cancer or is caring for someone affected by cancer, we have information to help you support them.

Managing cancer in the workplace

In the UK, over 700,000 people of working age are living with cancer. Managers play a fundamental role in supporting employees affected by cancer.

How cancer affects people

Your employee’s ability to work may change after a cancer diagnosis. To support them, it’s helpful to understand how treatment may affect them.

How to talk about cancer at work

Although it may be difficult for your employee to discuss their cancer diagnosis, open communication may enable you to support them.

Time off for your employee

Some people with cancer will be able to continue to work, others will need time off. There are different options to manage absences.

Occupational health advice

Occupational health advisers can help employers assess whether a role needs to be adjusted in light of an employee’s health.

Supporting carers

Carers who need to look after a dependant are allowed to take emergency time off. They may also wish to request flexible working.

Legislation about work and cancer

In the UK, there are laws that protect employees with cancer from being treated unfairly in the workplace. This includes discrimination, harassment and victimisation.


Although many people survive cancer, your employee or the person they are caring for may die from their illness.