Returning to work after breast cancer

New study finds women unaware of their entitlements

Deborah Condon

May 11, 2022

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  • Some women in Ireland who are living with or beyond breast cancer are not availing of the supports and entitlements open to them when they return to work, a new study has found.

    According to the findings, the main reason for this is that they are simply unaware of their employment rights and entitlements.

    Occupational therapy researchers in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) set out to explore the experiences of women who have had breast cancer and are returning to or remaining in work, in the context of employment legislation.

    They interviewed 15 women with breast cancer, 15 healthcare professionals and nine employers nationwide.

    Under Irish law, any employee with a cancer diagnosis has the right to reasonable accommodations to complete their job role and enjoy equal employment opportunities.

    This could be anything from a phased return to work after a cancer diagnosis, ergonomic changes to the workspace or facilitating working from home if feasible within the job description.

    Reasonable accommodations are typically put in place to manage side-effects such as cancer-related fatigue, cognitive dysfunction or reduced activity tolerance. 

    However the researchers found that most affected women and healthcare professionals were not aware of employment rights in the context of a cancer diagnosis.

    Furthermore, some women who were interviewed also reported experiences of indirect discrimination, where unfair expectations were placed on them when they returned to work.

    The researchers suggested that this is often due to a lack of awareness on the part of the employer, of the debilitating and enduring nature of the side-effects of cancer and its treatment.

    “We  found that most women with breast cancer who participated in our research were unaware of their entitlements and rights in the context of a cancer diagnosis. Healthcare professionals are not advising of workplace legislation because they themselves are not aware of it in the first place. 

    “This is important as many women may not be availing of, or being signposted by healthcare professionals to, important supports in the workplace,” explained TCD researcher and senior occupational therapist at St Jame’s’s Hospital, Naomi Algeo.

    She pointed out that occupational therapists can support this group in their return to work, however she acknowledged that there “is a need to expand occupational therapy resources in Ireland in order to provide this support”.

    The women who participated in this research identified the need for information and support from healthcare professionals to prepare them for going back to work. As a result, the research team developed the occupational therapy-led programme, ‘Work and Cancer’.

    It focuses on employment entitlements and strategies for managing physical and psychological health in the workplace.

    Research to date indicates that the ‘Work and Cancer’ programme increases participants’ knowledge and confidence to successfully negotiate the provision of statutory workplace supports and accommodations from their employers.

    Research into the programme is ongoing.

    The study is published in WORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation. It can be viewed here.

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