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Reintegrating Employees Undergoing Cancer Treatment into the Workplace: A Qualitative Study of Employer and Co-worker Perspectives


Purpose The purpose of this study was to explore how employers and co-workers experience the return to work (RTW) process of employees undergoing cancer treatment. Methods Sixteen semi-structured individual interviews and participant observations at seven workplaces took place, involving seven employers and nine co-workers with different professions. A phenomenological-hermeneutic analytic approach was applied involving coding, identification of themes, and interpretation. Results We identified three employer themes: call for knowledge, Making decisions, and Feeling helpless. Also, three co-worker themes were identified: understanding and sympathy, extra work and burden, and Insecurity about future work tasks. Early initiated RTW, e.g. less work hours and work accommodations, did neither constitute challenges for employers nor co-workers in the beginning of the RTW process. However, when the RTW process was prolonged employers encountered difficulties in finding suitable work tasks, whereas co-workers were burdened by extra work. Conclusions Overall, cancer survivors’ RTW process was welcomed and encouraged at the workplace level. However, employer and co-worker experiences suggested that RTW initiation parallel with cancer treatment raised challenges at the workplace level, when the RTW process was extended beyond the initial RTW plan; increased workload and difficulties in balancing the needs of the cancer survivor and co-workers. Mechanisms that support cancer survivors’ RTW without introducing strain on co-workers should be investigated in future research. Furthermore, support for employers in their RTW management responsibilities needs to be addressed in general and in particular in future RTW interventions.

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Author Contributions

The data collection and analysis was independently carried out by KSP. All authors were engaged in designing the study, writing the manuscript, and discussing the findings. Furthermore, the authors and social workers were discussing the preliminary findings; this helped contextualize the findings and gave insight into the possible implications of the RTW intervention on workplace actors.

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Correspondence to K. S. Petersen.

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Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest and the funding bodies had no impact on the study.

Ethical Approval

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000. The cancer survivor gave their consent to contact the direct supervisors and co-workers. Informed written consent was obtained from all persons who were interviewed and their anonymity was guaranteed. The study was registered with the Danish Data Protection Agency (Record No. 1.16-02-657-14).

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Petersen, K.S., Momsen, A.H., Stapelfeldt, C.M. et al. Reintegrating Employees Undergoing Cancer Treatment into the Workplace: A Qualitative Study of Employer and Co-worker Perspectives. J Occup Rehabil 29, 764–772 (2019).

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  • Cancer survivors
  • Return to work
  • Workplace
  • Rehabilitation