PURPOSE: The purposes of this study were (1) to investigate employment status at diagnosis, sick leave, and returning to work patterns in correlation to quality of life, anxiety, and depression in patients treated for head and neck cancer (HNC) and (2) to explore patients' experiences of the process of returning to work.
METHODS: Sixty-six patients with HNC (aged 34-66 years) were repeatedly interviewed over a period of 24 months. Interview responses that concerned the patients' experiences and ideas about work were categorised using the similarities-differences technique. Questionnaires on quality of life, anxiety, and depression were used to describe the patient characteristics and the differences between groups.
RESULTS: In total, 53 % of the patients had returned to work at 24 months after treatment, and 17 % were deceased. Several quality of life parameters were significantly worse for patients not working at 24 months after treatment. Nine categories were found to describe the return-to-work process starting with symptoms causing sick leave, thoughts about the sick leave, and ending with the return to work and/or retirement.
CONCLUSIONS: Returning to work is an important part of life because it structures everyday life and strengthens the individual's identity. The quality of life results showed significant differences between workers and non-workers at the 24-month follow-up. The patients need to be both physically and mentally prepared for the process of returning to work. It is important to take an individual rehabilitation approach to guide and support the patients in returning to work and regaining an important aspect of their everyday life. In such an approach, it is vital to understand the patients' overall life context and the patients' own perspective on the process and meaning associated with work.
2015. Vol. 24, no 1, 205-213 p.