Reintegration after cancer: how do you assist your employee?

Returning to work following an illness such as cancer is not always straightforward. However, it has proven to be a lifeline for many ex-patients. Work is often an important source of social interaction and can provide a sense of purpose. The successful reintegration of employees on long-term sick leave also prevents fade-out. But how to best support employees who are keen to return to work after or even during their treatment? 

Thanks to rapid scientific advancements, around 60% of patients now survive their cancer diagnosis. With better diagnostics and new therapies in future years, this figure is set to increase even more. In addition, 60 to 80% of cancer survivors return to work sooner or later. A new study shows that 2 out of 3 women who conquer breast cancer even return to work within two years after being diagnosed.

Nevertheless, employers and HR departments are not always aware of the options available to facilitate a successful reintegration of employees on long-term sick leave. Here are some key steps to help you get started.

From the hospital bed

Ex-cancer patients will have many questions. Will I be able to return to work at all? Will I go back to the same job? What other options do I have? A project called PRINK (a Dutch acronym for professional reintegration after cancer) was initiated by the Iridium Cancer Network to help patients throughout this process by providing as much information early on as possible, and by encouraging them to start giving thought to their return to work.  

As patients are often referred to their employer for more information about returning to work, PRINK decided to develop a guideline for supervisors and employers (Dutch version) that describes certain medical and psychosocial conditions and offers tips on how to deal with them.   

Workplace adjustments

Depending on the type of cancer, the type of treatment and whether or not the patient is still in the recovery stage, there are several workplace adjustments employers can introduce.

Recently, the Brussels Labour Court ruled that cancer and the consequences of cancer should be considered a disability. Employers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for workers with a disability.

Some examples of workplace adjustments:

  • Offer light duties and reduced hours to employees who are still chronically fatigued.
  • Make adjustments to accommodate the limited abilities of your employee, e.g. no stairs for those with reduced lung function; no repetitive arm and finger movements for those recovering from shoulder surgery, etc.  
  • Make a parking spot available near the entrance for workers who have suffered an amputation.
  • Provide quick and easy access to a sanitary room (a clean, quiet space) for employees who need to care for a stoma or suffer from bowel or bladder dysfunction.

You can also provide cognitive and psychosocial support by:

  • assigning a workplace buddy to help the employee build confidence;
  • making adjustments to work uniforms to help employees cope with cosmetic changes related to their illness and treatment;
  • allowing the employee to work from home;
  • introducing dedicated moments for feedback with the team;
  • taking into consideration the cognitive coping mechanism of the employee when assigning tasks.

Return-to-work programme

A successful reintegration can only be achieved through a personalised approach. It is important for employers to maintain regular contact with workers on long-term sick leave. By keeping in touch, you also learn about your employee’s needs or concerns.  

Together, you can then establish a return-to-work programme that takes into account any advice from the occupational health physician. Keep things clear and specific: what tasks will the employee be able to perform, on which days, and for how many hours a day?