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What supports do you need when returning to work following cancer treatment?

Pen Mary Forde Glasses 5 min read

According to the Irish National Cancer Registry, 1:3 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime and the incidence of cancer is expected to increase by 45% between 2010 and 2020, and by 110% between 2010 and 2030, mainly due to population ageing. This means there are increasing numbers of people living with cancer in Ireland and although the incidence of cancer is increasing, this is largely due to better and earlier detection of the disease. Meanwhile, mainly thanks to improved treatment for cancer, in Ireland, as in other countries, survival from cancer is increasing slowly, but steadily and there are more cancer survivors than ever. Also advances in drug treatment now mean that cancer is shedding its status as a terminal illness and it is increasingly perceived now as a chronic disease requiring treatment, lifestyle change and monitoring. With significant advances in early detection and treatment, and consequently greater cancer survival, a diagnosis of cancer is no longer viewed as terminal. Many persons living with cancer (from diagnosis on) continue to lead full and productive lives both at home and at work. With the sustained improvement in treatment and prognosis of many forms of cancer, an increasing number of survivors of cancer return to work following treatment or continue to work during therapy. As a consequence, patients with cancer and cancer survivors will become more the norm in the workplace.

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Support and advice for employees

For cancer survivors, returning to employment can be viewed as a way forward after cancer and a sign of returning to “normality”. In addition, returning to work may be essential for a sound financial future and also has important consequences for our workplaces. Many people that are surviving cancer are continuing and look forward to resuming their every-day lives, including their working lives, as a result of continuing progress in diagnosis and treatment on cancer. Between one third and two thirds of surviving cancer patients return to work and working can provide opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and friends, focus on something other than cancer, get involved in interesting and challenging projects, and start settling back into a regular routine and lifestyle.

Returning to work also underlines a return to normal activities, social recovery and a positive step towards an improved quality of life, as well as rehabilitation after treatment. This means that it is increasingly important that employers have the right policies and procedures in place and provide the necessary advice and support to help employees affected by cancer from the point of diagnosis to returning to work. (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 2006). Although returning to work can have a positive impact on an individual’s quality of life, some cancer survivors have reported a number of negative work related consequences which include job loss, demotion and task changes within the workplace. A non-supportive work environment has been shown to negatively affect return to work among cancer survivors. The return to work in cancer survivors seems therefore to be problematic in some patients but certainly not in all. It is important to identify those cancer patients with a higher risk of lasting absence from work to provide them with the appropriate support and counselling in returning to work. However, every person's situation is different. Employers have a key role in vocational rehabilitation and the re-integration of workers back to work after sickness absence.

I am an Occupational Health Manager at Laya healthcare and I embarked on a piece of research to explore organisational practices and establish if there are any barriers for employees in returning to work following cancer treatment. The research also sought to identify programmes and services that organisations in Ireland would benefit from. I conducted this research in fulfilment for my Masters of Occupational Health at NUI Galway in 2016 and with the support of a number of Laya healthcare’s client organisations who participated in this research.


The research found that many people surviving cancer are continuing or resuming their every-day lives, including their working lives, as a result of continuing progress in diagnosis and treatment on cancer. The research identified that a large proportion of organisations report a commitment to be supportive of cancer survivors returning to the workplace and this was evident from the range and depth of return to work support services available to aid employees back to work post illness in general. These range from workplace adjustments to access to healthcare professionals, including Employee Assistance Programme and Occupational Health services. Another interesting finding was that a majority of organisations surveyed did not know their legal responsibilities towards people with cancer and that cancer is classified as an illness falls under the Disability Act 2005.  Similarly employees may have a lack of knowledge of their employers’ legal obligations to them, and so may not request the support they are entitled to.

To conclude, though cancer treatment is well studied, work-directed interventions to improve work functioning however are not. More information on the characteristics of work directed interventions for all patients with cancer is needed to further develop interventions that can help patients with cancer return to work. Education and training is required for organisations in the area of the Disability Act 2005.

Laya healthcare’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), primarily a confidential counselling service that provides support to employees and their families, also extends to provide day to day practical advice from various healthcare practitioners including Physio, Home Care Nurses and Dietitians. Our team will assist employees directly or refer them to experts or services in their area along with providing information and resources relevant to the individual case. Whatever the query, our team have the resources and training to help ensure your employees can make informed decisions in relation to the services they require.

To find out more about how laya healthcare can look after your team call 021 202 2000 or email corporatebusiness@layahealthcare.ie 

Read also our blog from Breakthrough Cancer Research. 

Mary Forde

Mary Forde is an Occupational Health Manager within laya healthcare with over 15 years working in the area of Occupational and Employee Health. Mary works with clients in devising and recommending tailored and bespoke occupational healthcare solutions. Our Occupational Health services provide independent, impartial and expert advice to support employees in their work and assists employers support health at work for all employees. Mary is a registered Nurse and Midwife practitioner and recently completed her MSc in Occupational Health with NUI Galway. Mary also holds a BA Degree in Healthcare Management with the IPA Institute in Dublin.