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Supporting staff return to work after cancer

Katrina Holden

There is a strong belief in the UK that the moment cancer patients get the all-clear following treatment, they are able to return to their post cancer lives, happily and with ease. Contributor Katrina Holden, Founder – Life After Cancer.

Sadly, while part of this may be true, many struggle afterwards to recognise what their ‘normal’ is. Life After Cancer is an organisation I set up in a bid to raise awareness of the many difficulties cancer survivors face in redefining who they are, and highlights what employers can do to better support individuals in their return to work.  

Having had and survived cancer, I thought that the endless rounds of chemo and radiation were going to be the hardest thing I would have to deal with, but I was sorely mistaken. What I found most difficult – and what many other survivors do – is that once the medical teams step away, everything from there on is about trying to get back to normal and fit into the life you had before cancer. 

It’s certainly cause for celebration when the all-clear is given, however returning to work is without a doubt one of the most daunting, exhausting and overwhelming parts of getting that old life back. Particularly, as any cancer survivor will understand, you can feel like a completely different person to the one you were before the dreaded diagnosis.

From an employer’s perspective, you might have all the tools, processes and systems in place to support staff going through the journey, but may not be fully aware of how best to approach things when you do welcome them back into the workplace. 

How can you understand the psychological, emotional and physical trauma they’ve experienced if it’s not something you have personally gone through? And how can you properly understand the impact that this will have on not just their wellbeing, but on your workplace as a whole? 

Much of the time, returning staff will hide their true feelings and emotions, and reassure you that they are feeling absolutely ready to get back into the swing of things. And, it’s common for them not to ask for support if they do feel like they aren’t coping as well as they hoped – for fear of being reprimanded, being judged, or worse – losing their jobs, and financial security. 

And it’s these very thought processes that are extremely common amongst cancer survivors. Feelings like they aren’t good enough, that they don’t have a sense of purpose anymore, or that they feel guilty for not having the same motivation, focus, and attention to detail that they once had.  

Employers themselves can also share in this feeling of uncertainty. From how they can broach the subject of workload and phased working, to encouraging open communications between staff and managers – it’s a hugely complex situation that poses possible conflicts with the mental, financial, and physical wellbeing of returning employees. 

Many common long-term consequences among survivors are psychological – from mental health problems such as stress, anxiety or depression, through to body image issues, confidence, constant fear that it will return, and financial worries.  

While you might be comfortable knowing that you’ve done everything in your power to best support them, from a duty of care perspective, as a human being, and from an employment law perspective, it’s possible that things don’t return to being ‘OK’.  

Macmillan Cancer Research indicates that over 112,000 people of working age in the UK are diagnosed with cancer each year1, and Cancer Research UK suggests that one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives2. 

Despite the growing risk of getting cancer, there has been an increase in the rate of survival according to Cancer Research UK, which states that it has more than doubled in the last 40 years from 24 per cent to 50 per cent3. 

With more people at risk of getting cancer, and more people surviving, the number of people returning to work will continue to rise. For employers, it’s imperative that the process is handled as best it can, not only from the perspective of the individual in their return, but also ensuring that the business is prepared for the handling of such complex and sensitive situations.  

1. Firstly, an important thing to remember is that everyone deals with surviving cancer differently. Some people might take things slowly, and at a pace that works for them and for the business. Others may throw themselves completely into work, and eventually end up doing too much, too soon. Whatever the individual’s reactions or behaviours, you need to be present and visible, and able to spot signs that they might be struggling.  

2. An open and honest dialogue is also key. From expanding your knowledge and understanding about the psychological struggles your returning staff member might be facing, you are in a much better position to be able to offer support, to effectively and authentically communicate with them, and to build a valuable and trusted relationship. When they feel seen, heard and understood, it will make a huge impact on the success of their returning to work procedure, and on the business longer-term. 

3. Work with them to agree and set goals, based on their energy levels and what they are physically and mentally able to cope with. Allow them to plan their workload that will allow them to have rest periods if needed, and ensure that they don’t feel too overwhelmed by the everyday hustle and bustle. While having treatment, and after it’s finished, the brain’s cognitive abilities may be impaired, and so it could be that they take longer to do or think about tasks they previously would have flown through.  

4. Deadlines and project participation, while not placing them under too much pressure, is crucial as it reassures that they are valued, involved, and recognised. Linking back to the open communication, do bear in mind that while they might agree to do jobs, meet deadlines and deliver on projects, they might need some extra encouragement and reassurance that it’s absolutely OK tell you if they think they might struggle, or could benefit from some extra support. 

5. Accepting what they can do and how they feel on a day-by-day basis will also help to make the transition to work much easier. Without constantly comparing them or their standard of work to their pre-cancer abilities, it’s important to work with them to establish a new way of working that suits them, whilst still working to achieving the same goal. Helping them to be honest with themselves, and with you, will make things easier further down the line, if any issues start to become more significant.   

Cancer is a devastating disease, and can impact on not just an individual, but everyone around them, from families and friends, to colleagues and wider organisations. However, with the positive news that more and more people are surviving, and with further research yet to be done on effective preventative and reactive treatments, we’re all in a position to educate and better ourselves, so that we can make the process of returning to work that little bit easier for those having successfully battled cancer.”

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