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Cancer work and you
Working during treatment and recovery
If you want to work during treatment or return to work after treatment, you may consider flexible ways of working or using leave entitlements.
Flexible ways of working
If you have been with your employer continuously for 12 months and have a disability such as cancer, you have the right to ask for flexible working arrangements under the National Employment Standards. Long-term casual employees may also ask for flexible working arrangements. For more detailed information, visit the Fair Work website.
Some examples of flexible ways of working include:
- working from home some or all days
- reducing your hours, or changing your start, finish or break times
- working from another office or suitable location
- varying your hours, split shifts, working part-time or job sharing
- asking not to work certain days or times if you are a casual worker
- working alternative duties, or avoiding certain aspects of your role.
An occupational therapist can identify flexible ways of working for you to suggest to your employer, and help you liaise with them. You must make a request in writing, detailing the changes needed and why. Changes should be reasonable and workable for you and your employer.
Your employer can only refuse your request if they have first discussed it with you and genuinely tried to reach an agreement about changing your working arrangements to accommodate your circumstances. Your employer must accept or refuse your request in writing within 21 days. They can refuse your request on reasonable business grounds or not agree to all your requests. If your employer refuses your request and you don’t think their explanation is reasonable, you may be able to get help from the Fair Work Commission or anti-discrimination agency in your state or territory.
After a few weeks of the new schedule, talk to your manager or HR officer to see if the flexible arrangements are working for you both. You might want to change things if treatment is affecting you more than you thought, or as you feel better and can take on more work.
Tips for flexible work arrangements
- If possible, take a few hours off instead of the whole day.
- Try to schedule treatment sessions so you have more recovery time (e.g. late in the day or before your days off).
- Try working from home. Not having to commute may help you feel less tired.
- Write down the plan you and your employer have agreed on, and then both sign it.
- Let co-workers know about changes to your work hours.
- If you feel overwhelmed, don’t let your performance suffer too much before reassessing your work arrangements.
- Look for tools to help you work remotely. You could use a smartphone to get your emails, copy files to the cloud, or use a laptop.
There are several types of leave options available to help you balance work and treatment. The National Employment Standards outline the rules for leave under most awards or enterprise agreements. Typically, paid leave is only available to full-time and part-time employees, not casual or seasonal employees. But most casual employees can take 2 days of unpaid personal, compassionate or carer’s leave at a time. Entitlements offered under awards or agreements may be different, but can’t be any less than the National Employment Standards. Check the terms of your agreement for what leave you can take.
Tips for managing your leave
- Paid annual and personal leave starts building up from your first day of work. If you are a new employee, ask your manager or HR department if there is a waiting (qualifying) period for paid personal leave.
- Give as much notice as possible before applying for or taking leave.
- Combine personal leave with annual leave and long service leave if necessary.
- If you don’t have enough paid leave, ask your manager if you can take unpaid time off.
- Check with your employer if you can “cash out” your annual leave and any conditions that may apply. Some awards and agreements don’t allow this.
- Know your rights. It is generally against the law to dismiss someone for taking leave for an illness.
- If you think that your employer isn’t giving you the correct amount of leave, check your entitlements. For more information, visit the Fair Work Ombudsman or call them on 13 13 94.
Types of leave entitlements
There are 4 main types of leave available to full-time and part-time employees. Casual staff are not able to take most of these leave options. For more information about your entitlements under the National Employment Standards, visit Fair Work or check your employment contract.
Personal/carer’s leave Annual leave
- Taken when you are unwell or injured, or if you need to care for an immediate family or household member.
- Permanent full-time employees have at least 10 days of paid personal leave a year.
- Part-time employees receive a pro rata (proportional) amount of personal leave based on the number of hours they work.
- Casual staff don’t get paid personal leave.
- Leave is paid at your ordinary rate of pay.
- An employer can ask for proof that you need personal leave (e.g. a medical certificate).
- Unused leave carries over from year to year (accumulates or accrues). But it is not paid out when you leave your job.
- You can take as much paid personal leave as you have built up.
- An employer cannot dismiss you from your job or take any negative action against you because you use your paid personal leave. There are protections for employees who can’t work for longer periods of time because of an illness or injury.
- Full-time and part-time employees may take 2 days of paid compassionate leave when an immediate family or household member dies or has a life-threatening illness or injury.
- Also known as holiday pay.
- Paid annual leave is a legal right for all employees except casual workers. Full-time employees receive a minimum of 4 weeks of paid annual leave for each year of service with their employer. Part-time staff receive leave on a pro rata (proportional) basis.
- Annual leave is paid at the employee’s base rate of pay. Under some awards or agreements, employees are paid an increased rate (leave loading).
- Unused annual leave builds up (accumulates) over time. Your employer can ask you to take annual leave, but the request must be reasonable.
- Annual leave continues to build up when you take paid leave, but not during unpaid leave.
- An employee must apply for annual leave before taking it.
- An employer must approve annual leave unless they have reasonable grounds to refuse it.
- If you leave your employer, any unused annual leave is paid out.
Long service leave
- This is a period of paid leave after you’ve worked continuously for the same employer for an extended period of time. This leave may apply after 7–10 years. In some cases you may be able to transfer long service leave from one employer to another.
- If you’ve worked for the same employer for an extended period of time and resign due to illness, you may be entitled to a pro rata long service leave payment. This may apply after 5–7 years.
- The amount of long-service leave and the lengths of service required are different depending on which state or territory you live in.
- Long service leave is paid at the employee’s base or ordinary rate of pay. In some cases, you may be able to take a longer period of leave at half-pay.
- Once you are entitled to take long service leave, any unused leave is usually paid out when you resign or change employers.
- Periods of unpaid leave do not count towards continuous service for building long service leave.
- If you have used all your paid personal leave or if you are a casual employee, your employer might let you take leave from work without pay. This is not an entitlement – it is up to your employer to allow it or not.
- Full-time and part-time employees must use all their paid personal leave before they can take unpaid carer’s leave.
- Personal and annual leave don’t build up during unpaid leave.
- All employees, including casual employees, are entitled to 2 days of unpaid carer’s leave. This leave can be taken each time a member of an employee’s immediate family or household needs care and support because of illness, injury or an emergency.
- Casual employees can take 2 days of unpaid compassionate leave when an immediate family or household member dies or has a life-threatening illness or injury.
Am I entitled to workers compensation?
Each year in Australia, about 5000 people are diagnosed with work-related cancers, and 34,000 non-melanoma skin cancers, due to exposure at work. This can be due to sunlight, toxic dusts and chemicals (e.g. asbestos, silica dust, pesticides), and ionising radiation.
You may be entitled to workers compensation if you are diagnosed with a work-related cancer. It’s important to get legal advice from a lawyer specialising in workers compensation (contact the law society in your state or territory). To make a claim, notify your state or territory WorkSafe authority. In South Australia this is SafeWork SA. In some states, you may lodge a claim with your employer. A time limit may apply, so get advice early. For more information, download the ‘Compensation for work-related cancers fact sheet‘ or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Check your insurance
Disability or income protection insurance pays a portion of your income if you can’t work. You may have a policy, or it may be part of your superannuation. Find out from your employer or superannuation fund:
- your superannuation balance
- if you have income protection insurance (or salary continuance)
- the amount or percentage of pay (e.g. they pay 80% of your salary)
- how soon a claim is paid (usually after 60 or 90 days of not working)
- how many years it will pay you for.
Some people have insurance on their mortgage or credit card that makes repayments if you can’t. Ask your bank/creditor if this applies to you.
If you are thinking of resigning from your job, check any insurance coverage first, because leaving work may affect your entitlements.
For more information about finances, insurance and superannuation, and speak to a financial adviser for advice.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed June 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Brooke Russell, Principal Occupational Therapist, WA Cancer Occupational Therapy, WA; Bianca Alessi, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Prunella Blinman, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; James Chirgwin, Physiotherapist, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Simon Gates, Barrister, Tasmanian Bar, TAS; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Kaylene Jacques, Director, People and Communications, Cancer Council NSW; Alex Kelly, Senior People Attraction Advisor, Human Resources, Allianz Australia Insurance, NSW; Legal reviewer; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Lesley McQuire, Consumer, Cancer Voices NSW.