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6. Develop a formal return to work plan

Step 6 of 9 in getting ready to return to work:

Develop a formal return to work plan

When employers consider options for employees who are planning to return to work, they usually put the options in a certain order. Then they find out whether each option is feasible before going on to the next one.

Employers are likely to consider the following:

  1. Can you return to your old job without assistance?
  2. Can your job be modified temporarily?
  3. Can your job be modified permanently?
  4. Can some of your tasks be re-assigned?
  5. Can you move into another job at the same workplace?
  6. Can you be retrained for a different job at the workplace?

NOTE: Different employers have very different approaches and capacities to fulfill any or all of these options. Option 6, retraining for a different job, is often the last resort and is rarely offered.

Key questions to guide a return to work plan

Now that you and your healthcare team feel that you are ready to return to work, you and your employer are ready to write a return to work plan. The following questions can guide this process.

Time frame:

  • What is the anticipated start date for returning to work?
  • Is the employee returning gradually?
  • What is the projected end date of the return to work plan?
  • What weeks does this plan cover?
  • What days of the week will the employee work?
  • How many hours a day will the employee work?
  • What essential tasks and duties will the employee resume during this return to work plan?
  • What is the proposed schedule for resuming job tasks?

Restrictions and accommodations:

  • Are there any medical restrictions and limitations that the worker and employer need to adhere to?
  • Are the restrictions temporary or permanent?
  • If temporary, how long are the restrictions expected to last?
  • Are any work accommodations needed?
  • If so, what are the accommodations?
  • Why is each accommodation necessary?

Monitoring progress:

  • How and who will monitor the employee’s progress during the return to work process?
  • How will changes to the return to work plan be made if needed or required?

Creating a graduated return to work plan

Cancer survivors have described graduated return to work as the most common and best way to ease back into a job. A gradual return allows survivors to slowly increase their stamina, starting with a few days a week or a few hours a day and working up to full time. Sometimes it is impossible to predict the challenges that may come after returning to work. Doing it gradually allows survivors to assess their capacity to complete tasks and challenges that need to be addressed.

There is no set plan for a graduated return to work because the stages depend on your stamina, the demands of your job, and your workplace. Not all cancer survivors experience the same symptoms, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” plan for a gradual return to work. Some employers have minimum requirements for a graduated return to work, such as expecting you to be back to full hours within one month. However, not all survivors can meet this expectation (for example, because fatigue makes recovery longer). So it is helpful to know what your employer’s expectations are when you create a graduated return to work plan. Then you can inform your healthcare team. It is important to determine if there any federal and provincial regulatory bodies with policies on fitness to work such as the Department of Transportation, Transport Canada Marine Division and provincial departments of motor vehicles. They have requirements and restrictions around physical and mental conditions that are required for work such as truck driving, commercial marine boat operations, flying aircraft, etc.

To hear about a cancer survivor’s experience with returning to work, view the following video:

Three guiding principles for developing your return to work plan

Author of this section: Dr. Mary Stergiou-Kita, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

You and your healthcare team have decided that you are ready to return to work. How should you do this? How can you, your healthcare team, employer and insurance company work together to develop an effective return to work plan?

There are three guiding principles for developing formal return to work plans:

Guiding principle #1: Return to work plans should be individualized

A return to work plan should vary from one person to another. The needs of every returning employee and every employer are different. Each return to work plan should be based on the employee’s specific abilities and restrictions. There is no cookie-cutter approach.

Guiding principle #2: Return to work plans should have feedback from all involved

Return to work plans should have feedback from all parties involved in the return to work process. The plan will consider all needs, and will ensure that each party understands their responsibilities in the return to work process.

[It is important to] put together a plan that makes sense and is going to work from everyone’s perspective … Clear communication as well [is important] between parties so that everyone understands everyone’s perspective and what they are required to do to make the return to work [process] work.

Guiding principle #3: Return to work plans need to be flexible

While the plan must give the return to work process some structure, it must also be flexible enough to respond to ongoing changes in the employee’s needs.

We target a certain plan, but we don’t know if it’s going to work. It may [start as] a six-week plan or a 12-week plan but also reassure them that if we need to extend it, we can do it.

Eight key elements to include in a formal return to work plan

Experts have identified eight key elements that should be included in a return to work plan:

  1. Anticipated start and end date
  2. Number of days per week and hours per day that you will be expected to work
  3. Essential tasks and duties that you will be expected to complete
  4. Anticipated schedule for increasing work hours and resuming work tasks
  5. Medical restrictions or limitations (if any) that must be adhered to, and how long these restrictions or limitations should continue
  6. Work accommodations that will need to be put in place, and why you need them
  7. How your progress will be monitored, recorded and shared. Who will perform these tasks?
  8. How your return to work and accommodation plans will be changed as needed and who will be responsible for implementing these changes

Next step:

Step 7: Prepare for the first days, weeks, months back at work

Back to the list of return to work preparation steps