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How to Help an Employee With Cancer Return to Work

Unlike other medical conditions, determining how long an employee will be absent from work due to his or her cancer diagnosis can be tricky because there are so many unknowns. While some employees may be able to stay at work throughout their treatment, treatment plans can often vary from a few weeks to several months and require more significant time off.

In addition, some treatment plans include periods of time between the treatments or therapies to allow for recovery or to determine the response to treatment. Other variables include the employee’s reaction to the treatment, such as nausea or fatigue. However, depending on the type of cancer, severity of diagnosis and treatment plan, employees may want to return to work for a limited time between treatments.

HR managers can be a crucial ally in ensuring an employee has the support he or she needs to balance work, treatment and recovery. If an employee expresses a desire to return to work, HR managers can be supportive by being open to a plan that helps them work around their treatment schedule.

Stay Connected

Some employers are hesitant to reach out to an employee at the risk of upsetting him or her during their recovery, or running afoul of employment regulations. However, communication is key to gauging how well an employee is doing and to provide the best support when the employee returns to work.

Employers often think they shouldn’t communicate with the employee who is out on a disability claim. However, there is no need to isolate yourself from the employee during his or her absence. Reaching out to the employee, asking how he or she is doing shows you are thinking about them and genuinely care about their recovery, not just getting them back to work. It’s important to remember to not ask detailed questions about his or her medical condition to ensure compliance, but to let the employee talk about what he or she is comfortable discussing.

Get Creative

Just like each cancer diagnosis, every return-to-work timeline and scenario is unique. HR professionals can work closely with a consultant from their disability carrier and the employee to see if and/or when the employee would be able to return to work — even if that means with limited responsibilities or a reduced job function or work hours.

An employer I recently worked with offered its recovering employee a split shift while receiving cancer treatments. The employee would come into the office and work for a few hours at a time, go home to rest, then return to work to finish out the day. On the days she received her treatment, her work schedule was altered as needed. Searching for outside-the-box solutions to give the employee a flexible schedule that works with his or her treatment schedule can help the employee feel supported and empowered to return to work without jeopardizing their health or interrupting their treatment.

Keep a Watchful Eye

Once the employee returns to work, whether full time without restrictions or in some limited capacity, it is important that communication is maintained between the HR manager, disability consultant and the employee. It is crucial that the employee feels comfortable in the work environment and has the tools needed to succeed, mainly, the support of his or her employer and the ability to discuss any concerns he or she has.

You aren’t alone in navigating these challenging scenarios. Using these tips and continuing communication with your disability consultant and employee throughout the employee’s treatment and recovery can help an employee feel valued and supported during an already difficult and uncertain time. 


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