The Return to Work Information Warehouse: Cancer and Return to Work

Return to Work

There are several different reasons why an employee may take a leave of absence – perhaps they acquired an injury, needed to take some time away for mental health reasons, or maybe an individual simply needs time away from work to focus on other matters in their life. Whatever the reason for taking a break from a job or career, the return to work process is different for every unique situation that causes an individual to leave work. Some people can return to work with ease, however, there are a significant amount of individuals who require guidance and support when making the transition back to work after some time away. This is where Occupational Therapists come in – they have the knowledge and tools to aid individuals in their return-to-work process, and set up employees for success upon their return to their career.

Cancer Survivors & Return to Work

A common reason an employee may take time off work is due to illness – sometimes it’s just a few days off work with the flu, and other times it’s much more serious and even can be life-threatening, such as cancer. Returning to work after facing such an illness can often times be challenging. Frequently, cancer survivors obtain an altered world-view after facing a life-threatening illness, which can cause them to rearrange their life priorities, including a change in their goals pertaining to their career choice (Seguin, 2018). Often times, a “life is too short” mentality occurs, resulting in a desire to pursue other goals and means of success (2018). Cancer patients may also be hesitant to return to work due to fears of relapse, judgment and/or curiosity from co-workers, and a decreased sense of self-efficacy (2018). With these obstacles in mind, it may be difficult for a cancer survivor to see the positive side of returning to work, which can include a sense of normalcy, social inclusion, financial gain and positive self-concept (2018). Regardless of the benefits of returning to work, in 2002, the average rate of cancer patients returning to work following treatment sat at an average of 62% (2018).

What are some of the functional concerns following cancer treatment?

  • Cognitive limitations related to memory, executive function and organization of thoughts
  • Fatigue related concerns following chemotherapy
  • Loss of routine
  • Neuropathies and swelling in specific extremities

What Employers Need to Know

Having an Occupational Therapist assist a cancer survivor in their return to work process has many benefits:

  • The holistic approach used has been suggested to increase overall quality of life, minimize disability duration & foster a successful return-to-work
  • Occupational Therapists have been shown to have a significant role in reducing sick days, accelerating work resumption and preventing loss of functional capacity
  • Acting as an aid in mediating communication between employee and employer to ensure needs are met
  • Occupational Therapists focus on re-establishing work-related skills, address self-identity and work on re-establishing relationships in the workplace
  • Ability to connect clients with cancer support groups or aid in disclosure of diagnosis – this is suggested to help a client connect with co-workers and establish empathy for the return to work process, decreasing judgment and anxiety surrounding perceived judgment (2018).

Possible accommodations required in the workplace:

  • Flexible work hours to accommodate for treatment appointments and fatigue
  • Gradual return to work allowing for gradual increase in activity level
  • Memory aids to assist with loss of memory
  • Provision of cognitive accommodations specific to the employee’s abilities/limitations
  • Ergonomic strategies to adjust inputting devices, support and positioning in the workplace
  • Pacing and adjustment of work tasks to allow for higher energy times for tasks
  • Emotional support through EAP and similar counselling sessions.
  • Return to work preparation to allow for employee to reintegrate with coworkers

Gowan Consulting has multiple resources available to aid employers with the return to work process. We have highly trained Occupational Therapists available to work in collaboration with employers and their employees to ensure a successful return to work following a leave of absence. We also have return to work workshops as well as online webinars available to educate employers on how to work with their employees upon their return to work.

For more information on the resources we have available to ensure your business is safe and healthy, Contact Us.


Works Cited

Seguin, A. (2018). Occupational Therapy, Cancer, and Return to Work. Western University, London, Ontario.

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