Sometimes people who have been affected by a significant illness or health condition are keen to return to work as soon as possible. Work can contribute to wellbeing by providing a daily routine and a sense of identity outside illness and treatment regime, connection with others, and a source of income.

Before you consider returning to work, you should discuss your situation with your doctor, your employer and insurer (if applicable). They will need to ensure you are sufficiently capable to do your job.

You may be faced with the prospect of working fewer hours or taking a slightly different approach to carrying out your job. For example, some patients with cancer feel well enough to work while still having chemotherapy, radiation or other intensive treatments. Others may need to take time off from work until their treatment sessions are completed.

It’s Fine To Have Concerns

You may be worried about how your employer and co-workers may react. Similarly, your ability to meet your usual workload may be questioned. One solution is to gradually return to work. As you feel stronger, you can increase your hours and resume more of your standard duties. Alternatively, you may feel physically and mentally fit to resume your previous workload.

Under Australian legislation, all employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the effects of an employee’s diagnosis.

This could take the form of your employer being flexible with work location as well as start and finish times, providing you with ergonomic work tools, allowing you to return to work in stages as well as giving you time off to attend medical appointments.

Consult your general practitioner, specialist or occupational therapist about whether you are physically capable of undertaking your routine work. Your employer can ask you to provide them with a medical examination clearing you as fit for work or to highlight any alterations they may need to make to accommodate your personal needs.

Getting Ready To Return To Work

There are several things you can do to prepare yourself to return to your work:

  1. Revisit your lifestyle: Include regular exercise, ensure your diet is healthy, identify fun hobbies or leisure activities you enjoy and always make time for yourself every day
  2. Resume your normal work schedule: Get out of bed at your normal work time, dress for work, do some trial travel runs to work, and test yourself with some familiar work tasks
  3. Access assistance in getting ready for work: Consult a physiotherapist, occupational therapist, rehabilitation specialist or exercise physiologist.

Your Workplace Legal Protection

Your employer should allow you to return to work providing you have a medical certificate clearing you as fit to return to work. You may also need to demonstrate you can perform your core job tasks providing reasonable changes are made to your workplace.

Some people continue to confront roadblocks when they attempt to return to work or seek a new job after illness. Employers may not always treat employees or candidates fairly due to misunderstanding about the nature of their illness.

Your employer may not be obliged to accommodate the effects of your diagnosis or treatment regime if they can demonstrate how proposed changes would cause them unjustifiable hardship or that you would not be able to conduct your routine job requirements even if workplace changes were implemented.

Some employers may believe people with a significant diagnosis or illness take too many sick days, others may have misunderstandings about how contagious an illness is. Some employers also view employees who have been unwell as poor insurance risks.

Australia’s legislation is clear. It is unlawful to unfairly treat or discriminate against staff who have disabilities. Similarly, if you are looking for a new role, you have no legal obligation to disclose your health history unless your it has a direct impact on the job you are applying for.

Changing Roles

For many people, their diagnosis and resulting treatment may prompt them to reconsider their career aspirations and values. 

A preference for reducing working hours or work-related stress can come hand-in-hand with a desire to seek out more meaningful work. Moreover, changes in your physical or mental capability or the length of time you’ve been away from work may make returning to your old job difficult.

If you are considering changing jobs, map out a skills inventory and identify job areas where your skills and experience are valued. Also, think about whether working part-time would be a better option for you. 

You may also benefit from additional training and support to assist you in coping with the long-term side effects of your treatment. And remember, you are not obliged to tell a potential employer you’ve had cancer unless it interferes with your ability to do the job.

It Can Be a Rollercoaster

People often describe a significant diagnosis and subsequent treatment as an emotional rollercoaster. Transitioning back to work can bring with it the comfort of a familiar routine as well as reduced financial pressure. Having a written back-to-work plan can help you manage your own and other’s expectations. It’s important to return at your own pace.

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