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Timing of return to work

Timing for return to work is very important. There are disadvantages to survivors in delaying a return to work. For example, delays may lead to:

  • change in work duties
  • loss of job knowledge
  • changes in workspaces and work environments
  • weakened connections with people at work
  • continued reduced income
  • job loss

For cancer survivors, their managers, and colleagues, having the survivor go back to work too soon may make implementing the return to work process overly difficult and may lead to an unsuccessful return to work. This can happen for several reasons:

  • Cancer and treatment related problems have not been anticipated and planned for.
  • Survivors may not be prepared for other challenges they may encounter.
  • Survivors return to work without the supports they need to address challenges.

In most cases, employers and managers are initially very keen to support someone who is coping with cancer and wants to return to work. However, they may lack understanding of how cancer and its treatment may impact an employee’s ability to work, which can cause frustration. Healthcare providers can increase employers’ and managers’ understanding by providing information on:

  • the effects of cancer and treatment on the employee’s work functioning
  • how these effects may impact work readiness
  • challenges the employee may face upon returning to work
  • how these challenges can be addressed
  • likely changes in work functioning over time

How healthcare providers can help

There are also ways that healthcare providers can help survivors return to and remain at work:

  • Schedule consultations and treatments at times that least impact the patient’s work schedule.
  • Help patients understand their functional abilities in the context of their jobs.
  • Refer patients to resources (medical management, vocational and other rehabilitation, community agencies) to help them improve their work abilities.
  • Provide medical information and recommendations to patients and their disability insurers on work readiness, return to work and job maintenance.
  • Recommend that employers and disability insurers fund services to aid in vocational rehabilitation services.
  • Encourage patients to anticipate challenges in returning to and remaining at work and then plan how they will address these challenges.
  • Become familiar with work-related resources for cancer survivors in the healthcare system, government services, community agencies and the private sector.
  • Tell your patients about these work-related resources.

For detailed guidance for physicians on return to work, see Injury / Illness and Return to Work/Function: A Practical Guide for Physicians prepared by the Physician Education Project in Workplace Health.