Just another day at the office
- Fri., Oct. 21, 2011
Working while undergoing cancer treatments is a harsh reality. Here’s how to be at your best on-the-job when you’re not at your physical best.
Whether the motivation is maintaining health insurance, personal finances, a family or simply a beloved career, at some point most people battling or recovering from cancer will have to go back to work. But when your future also includes myriad medical appointments and unknown treatment side-effects, the prospect of returning to your 9-to-5 can make your anxiety levels work overtime.
In order to make the process of easing back into your job a whole lot easier, it’s important to know what to expect, understand your rights and research the resources available to you. Here’s your welcome back starter kit.
Shaping a Smooth Transition
Most cancer survivors are eager to return to work as soon as possible, not only to retain income and benefits, but also to maintain a sense of identity unrelated to their illness, says Barbara Hoffman, JD, a professor at the Rutgers – Newark School of Law and founding chair of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (CancerAdvocacy.org).
That said, while some people may find it easy to transition back into working full-time, for others it may take some adjustment. “You may find that you tire easily or have trouble focusing at first,” says Kimberly Stump-Sutliff, RN, associate medical editor for the American Cancer Society (Cancer.org). Talk with your doctor honestly about the realities of your job and any problems you have that could potentially affect your productivity.
You also might decide that it would be helpful to share your situation with your employer and discuss possible options like flextime, job sharing, working from home, starting with shorter workdays or working fewer days a week, says Stump-Sutliff. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) may help make your case for these alternatives.
Once you’re on the job, take time during work to relax for a few minutes, says Michael Feuerstein, PhD, a professor at the Biometrics Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md, and editor of the compilation “Work and Cancer Survivors,” (Springer, 2010). He suggests going for a walk, taking a break to get some water or visiting with a coworker. Getting exercise or utilizing alternative medicines like acupuncture during non-work hours can also help with energy levels and pain.
Sharing the News
Deciding to share your diagnosis with your boss and coworkers is an entirely personal decision. “Your boss is entitled to know only enough information (if any) to assure that you can perform your job safely, and must keep any medical information private,” Hoffman says.
Kate Sweeney, executive director of Cancer and Careers (CancerAndCareers.org), recommends that you first meet with your healthcare team and get the specifics on your treatment schedule. If the time involved or likely side effects (e.g. fatigue or hair loss) will have an impact on your performance or be impossible to miss, it’s a good idea to inform your supervisor so he or she knows what to expect, Sweeney says. And be sure to provide a list of potential solutions, adds Feuerstein. For example, if you think it will be difficult to multitask, propose alternating between focusing on a necessary task for an hour and then taking 15 minutes to make or return calls.
If you opt to share your experience with coworkers, it’s a good idea to be prepared for a variety of reactions, Stump-Sutliff says. While some people may respond with understanding and offers of help, others may react awkwardly out of a vague uneasiness about cancer, resent that they had to take on extra duties because of your absence, ask inappropriate questions, or avoid you because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
If faced with an intrusive response, Stump-Sutliff suggests politely but firmly setting boundaries by preparing a response that changes the topic or cuts off the conversation if it goes too far. If the problem is an uncomfortable coworker, suggest that they learn more about the realities of the illness at Cancer.org.
Asking for Special Accommodations
Under Title I of the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions, Sweeney says. (Acceptable accommodations vary depending on the individual and job, but to qualify, your place of work must have 15 or more employees.) Before invoking any legal protection, Sweeney recommends speaking with an expert such as the Cancer Legal Resource Center (DisabilityRightsLegalCenter.org), which provides free legal advice.
The next step is to request the specific accommodation – such as permission to telecommute, flextime to accommodate medical care, change in job hours or duties and workplace modifications – in writing, Hoffman says. You will have to disclose your disability, but you may ask for accommodations at any time before or after you start working and employers are required to engage in an interactive process to determine the best fit for the individual.
Managing Continuing Care
If you’ll need more than your allotted sick/vacation time to attend continuing treatment and/or follow-up appointments, talk to your employer about your needs, Stump-Sutliff says. Under federal and state laws, some employers may be required to allow you to work a flexible schedule.
“For example, if your company has 50 or more employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows many people with serious illnesses to have up to 12 weeks total of unpaid leave per year, while retaining health benefits and job protection,” Sweeney says.
Check with your human resources department to learn more about FMLA and other possible options, such as short-term and long-term disability insurance. Don’t wait until your work performance is already suffering. “If doing a poor job gets you fired, you’ll also lose your health insurance and you can’t collect disability benefits,” Stump-Sutliff says. “If you need time off to focus on getting well, take it.”
Rethinking Career Goals
If, after returning to work, you discover that your old job is too difficult to maintain at the present time or you simply find that your priorities have changed, it’s time to start thinking about a new career. Sweeney suggests determining what types of work you might enjoy, your financial needs (including benefits), whether you’d prefer to work from home or part-time, and what you can physically handle. Then, make a list of positions that fulfill those priorities and reach out to your network of friends, family, former colleagues, etc.
“It can also be helpful to talk to an expert,” Sweeney says. “Cancer and Careers offers free career coaching provided by a roster of professionals, some of whom are cancer survivors themselves.”
CancerCare (CancerCare.org), Job Accommodation Network (AskJAN.org), Lance Armstrong Foundation (LiveStrong.org), National Cancer Institute (Cancer.gov), Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (UlmanFund.org), and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.gov/facts/cancer.html).
© CTW Features
Getting a new job while you’re still undergoing treatment or recovering
Rights: A fundamental principle of the ADA is that people with disabilities who are qualified to work must have an equal opportunity to work, Stump-Sutliff says. But you still have to meet the employer’s job requirements e.g. education, experience, skills or licenses. “Employers are not required to lower their job standards to accommodate someone with cancer.”
Work History Gaps: If your gap is less than a year, list years instead of months of employment on your resume to mask the missing time, Sweeney says. You’ll also want to be prepared with a short, clear response for work history questions in the early rounds of interviews; however, an upside to the current economy is that numerous candidates now have job gaps for a variety of reasons, so employers may not even ask about them.
Timing: Per the ADA, a potential employer cannot ask about your health status and you are not required to disclose it, notes Feuerstein, so it may be in your best interest to get the job first, and then determine any necessary accommodations, without mentioning your illness until your value to the organization is clear.