Many side effects can be managed or controlled, but some may make it challenging for an employee to do their job for a period of time.
Talk to your employee with cancer about how they would like to manage work during and after treatment. You may be able to offer practical strategies to make it easier for them to cope with side effects at work. Adjusting the employee’s workload, hours and environment may mean they can continue working if that is what they’d like to do.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to regularly review the employee’s working arrangements. Their needs may change as treatment progresses. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan in place for when the employee is unable to attend work and to share these details with them. This will ensure that they feel comfortable that their work is covered if their circumstances change.
Under Australian law, cancer is considered a disability. Employers are legally obliged by the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to make changes to help an employee continue working. These changes are known as reasonable adjustments.
Examples of reasonable adjustments include:
- extra breaks to attend medical appointments or manage pain or fatigue
- changes to duties as agreed
- more time to complete tasks
- reduced hours, flexitime, working from home, part-time work or a gradual return to work
- changes to the workspace such as a more suitable chair or a height-adjustable desk or counter
- providing voice-activated software, telephone headsets or screen-reading software.
These adjustments could be temporary or long-term.
An employer can refuse to make these changes if they could cause an unjustifiable hardship to the business. This may include a high cost or disruption to the workplace.
Flexible working arrangements
Under the National Employment Standards, an employee who has at least 12 months of continuous service has the right to ask for flexible working arrangements. These may include:
- working from home some or all days
- working from another worksite
- changing start, finish or break times
- varying work hours, working part-time or job-sharing.
Employers have a duty of care to employees. If an employer feels that the employee is too unwell to be at work, the employer may direct the employee to go home and seek medical attention. An employer can also request a medical certificate stating that an employee is fit for work.
The amount of leave an employee will need will vary according to the type of cancer, its stage, and the treatment required.
An employee may need to take time off work to have treatment or recover from treatment. This may be as a one-off, or they may need to take time off periodically. For example, someone who has major surgery may need six weeks or more to recover, while someone undergoing radiation therapy may need to attend appointments every morning for several weeks.
There are various leave options available under the National Employment Standards to help employees balance work and treatment.
Most permanent full-time employees are entitled to a minimum of 10 days of paid personal/carer’s leave, which includes sick leave, for each year of employment. Permanent part-time employees are entitled to a pro-rata amount of paid personal/carer’s leave, based on the number of hours they work. Paid personal/carer’s leave that is not used
is carried from year to year.
Generally, employees must use their annual leave, and then any long service leave, before taking unpaid leave.
Employees are required to let their employers know of their inability to work as soon as practicable and should advise the employer of the expected period of leave. The employer may require evidence to support the reason for the leave, such as a medical certificate or statutory declaration, as specified by the organisation’s policies, employment contracts or relevant award.
Check the employee is aware of any income protection arrangements they may have as part of their superannuation.
Tips and strategies for managers
- Ask the employee if it’s possible to have a written outline of their expected treatment schedule, so that you have time to consider and organise any adjustments you as an employer need to make.
- If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), encourage the employee or their family members to use its counselling services if they wish to do so.
- Talk to the employee about any assistance they may need to help them do their job and manage the side effects.
- If possible, suggest flexible work hours that will allow the employee to attend medical appointments and work when they can.
- Plan for absences. The employee will probably need time off to attend medical appointments, and may have days when they are not well enough to work at all.
- Be mindful that treatment can often run overtime and that an employee may sometimes be delayed at medical appointments.
- Temporarily reallocate or adjust some of the employee’s usual duties to avoid very demanding tasks; offer more time to complete work and projects; and prioritise tasks.
- Encourage the employee to plan their work around when they have the most energy.
- If practical, arrange for the employee to work from home some of the time. This may mean employees at risk of infection can avoid people on public transport or in the workplace who are sick. Be mindful that working from home may be isolating and that there are workplace health and safety requirements involved with working from home.
- Allow the employee to have rest breaks, as needed, during the day.
- Offer assistive technology, e.g. voice-activated software, telephone headsets or a more supportive chair.
- Arrange an ergonomics assessment to ensure that the employee’s work environment is still appropriate, safe and comfortable.
- Use technology such as email to stay in touch with an employee who is taking time off; ask how often they’d like to hear from you.
- If the employee works in a noisy area and is having difficulty concentrating, consider moving their workspace to a quieter location.
- If possible, provide a parking space.
- Consider the allocation of work within the team – can some of the employee’s tasks be reallocated to other team members?
- Offer your employee a cab voucher or a lift if they feel unwell and have to go home.
- Because of the increased risk of infection, encourage co-workers who are sick to stay at home until they are fully recovered, or relocate them away from the employee who is undergoing cancer treatment.
- Check whether your employee has any special safety requirements. For example, people having chemotherapy may need to dispose of waste at work. Their medical team will provide advice about how to safely dispose of waste or spills.
- Find out if your workplace has a return to work coordinator who could assist in the transition back to work.
- Talk to your employee about their return to work options. These may include returning to work gradually, starting back on light duties, having flexible start and finish times, or taking additional rest breaks or time off to attend medical appointments.
- Be mindful that an employee may put pressure on themselves to return to their normal work situation. Ensure that you do not add to this pressure – reassure them that they are not expected to perform at their usual level while having treatment or recovering.
Working after treatment
Some employees will have long-term physical and emotional side effects from their treatment, including fatigue, pain, changes to their appearance, and difficulty concentrating or focusing. After treatment, some employees will feel ready to return to their full workload. Others will need your support to return to their usual role. Each situation will be different – talk to your employee about their capacity to undertake their usual tasks, and the support you can provide.
Visit the Australian Government’s Job Access website for advice and assistance. Their Employment Assistance Fund provides financial assistance to employers for work-related equipment, modifications and services for employees with disability.