Returning to work after blood cancer
Returning to work after a diagnosis of blood cancer can mean extra stress and new obstacles to overcome. You may need to renegotiate your duties or hours; you may need your workplace to make some adjustments to the environment; you may be anxious about talking to colleagues; or you may find that you want or need to reconsider your career or employment. All these things can be difficult to deal with, but understanding your rights and responsibilities, working with your employer and medical team, and creating a return to work plan can help you get back to work.
Whether you are in active treatment for a blood cancer, on a ‘watch and wait’ regime or have been told by your medical team that you are in remission, there are a few things you should consider before deciding to return to the workforce.
If you feel well enough to return to work, you should speak to your medical team about whether it is the right to time to return to work. Though you may feel well enough, you may be immune-compromised and should not be exposed to groups of people, or you may be about to start a new course of treatment that may potentially have serious side-effects. Either way, your doctors should be made aware of your plans and give you the all-clear to return to work.
Many workplaces will require some sort of medical certificate if you are returning to work. This may be as simple as your doctor confirming your condition has improved enough to go back to work, or a certificate outlining in what capacity you are fit enough to return to work.
Create a return-to-work plan
Creating a plan with your medical team and manager can not only benefit you, but your workplace as well. Your medical team will help you outline any limitations you may have to begin with and your work can help to accommodate these – whether that be adjusting your hours, equipment or location. You can do this either informally over the phone or create a more formal plan which your doctor and manager will agree to and sign off on.
Practice your routine
As a test as to whether you are ready to return to work, try to practice what it would be like to be back at work. This may sound silly but can really help you decide if you are ready to return. Start by waking up at the time you would need to, practice your commute to work and put in a couple of hours working on projects with the same mental or physical challenges that you will face in the workplace.
People undergoing treatment for a blood cancer can have a range of side effects that limit their ability to return to work in a full capacity, which means some adjustments may need to be made. These should be included in the return to work plan that you created with your doctor. Some adjustments to your workplace may include:
A regular side effect of any cancer treatments is Cancer-Related Fatigue, which can greatly diminish your capacity at any time during the day. To work around this, you may be able to negotiate flexible working hours that will allow you to rest when required. Alternatively, you may be able to work from the comfort of your home and complete your duties at your own speed.
As your body may still be recovering from treatment, it is important that you do not push yourself too hard and cooperate with your body’s needs.
Due to aches or pains, you may need assistive equipment such as an adjustable chair, standing desk or specialised tools to do your job effectively. For example, poor eyesight can impact people as a side effect of some cancer treatments, therefore those who work with computers may be impacted and could benefit from text-to-speech software.
Duties and targets
You may be unable to complete certain tasks in the same way as you were able to before your diagnosis. Your manager may alter your role slightly to unburden you from those duties and may therefore need to change your work duties or goals.
Before your return to work date, your work may need to provide you with special facilities that were otherwise not available to you. This may mean something as simple as moving your desk closer to the bathroom or freeing up a parking space closer to the entry.
There are multiple layers of protection in Australia to prevent people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness from being discriminated against by their employer. This protection includes the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Fair Work Act 2009 which are both federal legislations. Each state also has their own Fair Work legislation which changes state-by-state.
Once you have informed your employer that you plan to return, your workplace is legally required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate your needs.
If you feel you have been discriminated against and feel your workplace is refusing to accommodate your needs, speak with the Fair Work Ombudsman or the Human Rights Commission to discuss your situation.
Once you have returned to work, situations can arise in which you feel discriminated against.
This may mean you have been treated differently to other employees in a negative way because of your medical condition. For example, being demoted to a lower-paying role or not receiving a promotion.
This is where a rule, policy or procedure has been put in place for all staff but disadvantages you in some way. For example, if your work wanted all staff to move heavy equipment regularly, but you are unable to.
Dealing with people
If you have taken time off work to focus on treatment, returning to work can feel daunting – especially if your colleagues have become aware of your condition. Not all people living with a blood cancer want to talk about their illness and answer questions about their cancer journey.
The most important thing to remember is that it is your journey and your story. If you don’t want to share your story, that’s entirely up to you. If you choose to share your story, be cautious about what details you share as you don’t know how other people may react. Also, be mindful of what environment you are in before you share any details – not everyone may want to hear about the side-effects you may have experienced over lunch!
Part of your return-to-work plan should include speaking with your family and your carer to discuss your options. Being open and honest with those closest to you is often the easiest way to transition back to work.
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.