Returning to Work After Cancer

Clients are increasingly seeking our guidance on how to respond to a situation where a staff member has been diagnosed with cancer as well as how best to support them in  successfully returning to the workplace following treatment.

Incidences of cancer are on the rise with reportedly one person receiving a cancer diagnosis every 3 minutes in Ireland*. With increases in early detection and the improvement of cancer treatments, there is now a higher prevalence of cancer survivors returning to the workplace.

It can be a challenge for an employer to know exactly how to sensitively and supportively deal with a situation where an employee has received news of their diagnosis, is undergoing treatment or has indicated their readiness to return to work.

Further, employers understandably want to get it right when it comes to employment related factors, including for example: time off, what supports to provide including how to keep in contact and concerns about a staff member’s ability to carry out their full role following their return to work.

In our experience, employers want to be compassionate and understanding in such situations and are keen to support an employee coming back to work, aiming for a warm welcome back and a smooth supportive return as they settle back. It’s important to remember, that every case of cancer is different, every individual employee is different, and no two situations are the same.

This article aims to be an initial resource for employers. It highlights some of the main themes employers need to be aware of and consider when:

  1. Responding to a staff member’s cancer diagnosis,
  2. Supporting a staff member during their time undergoing treatment, and
  3. Planning supportively for their return to work.

As an employer, when responding to a staff member’s cancer diagnosis, it’s your role to:

  • Respond compassionately and approach all conversations with the utmost sensitivity and privacy.
  • Be clear and reassuring about their job security. You’re obliged to guarantee job security in situations where a staff member is diagnosed with cancer.
  • Ensure you’ve informed the staff member from the start what financial company supports are in place for them during their absence, e.g. sick pay and how long it lasts, information and details on any corporate health insurance schemes, income continuance schemes or other relevant financial supports or schemes in place.
  • Ensure the staff member is aware of ongoing medical certification requirements to avoid any misunderstandings along the way.
  • Be helpful in letting them know of other external financial supports they may be entitled to including social welfare illness benefit and how that is treated in cases where there is company sick pay.

An employer’s support for a staff member during their time undergoing treatment can have many forms beyond the obvious financial supports:

  • Establish and maintain regular contact from the start with the aim of reassuring the staff member about their employment and giving them an opportunity to ask any work-related questions they may have. This can be by way of phone calls, email contact or a home visit.
  • Encourage them to keep in touch with colleagues and visit the office from time to time for a social visit or coffee.
  • Keep them up to date on company news, preferably by post, e.g. company newsletters or information on job announcements etc.
  • Remember to be mindful of the fact that the person will also need their space to recover and heal, so balance is key.

Plan supportively for the staff member’s return by jointly making a return to work plan.

  • When the staff member has indicated their fitness to come back to work, arrange to meet up, discuss their aspirations about their return to work and any concerns they may have.
  • Ask for a medical certificate from their care team or oncologist, which indicates their fitness to return to work as well as any recommendations for a successful return to work.
  • It can be good practice at this stage to arrange for an appointment with an occupational health practitioner, who will provide a detailed report and recommended return to work plan for the individual employee for their particular job and with medical recommendations for any reasonable accommodations that may need to be made, e.g. phased return, flexible working arrangements, role adaptations etc.
  • Be flexible and open and take it slowly. As every case of cancer is different, be careful not to make any assumptions about what accommodations or adjustments will or won’t be needed – Be guided by the medical recommendations and work together to ensuring the plan works both ways.
  • Remember to check in regularly with your staff member to jointly review how they are settling back in as regards the work, the workload, their schedule, their physical and mental wellbeing in the early days, and during the weeks and months that follow ensuring follow up medical reviews as required.

For detailed advice and guidance, please contact us at 01 525 2914 and a HR Consultant will be happy to assist you.

Employers can also find further information resources on this topic at:

*Statistics sourced from and NCRI


Sarah Treacy MCIPD, HR Associate