Purpose Research suggests that for many cancer survivors, returning to work has a range of benefits. However, considerable barriers have been identified as influencing the quality of return to work outcomes. This study explored the perspectives of Australian cancer survivors, managers and employee assistance program (EAP) professionals to gain an understanding of the return to work process and factors that affect the experience. Methods Focus groups and interviews were conducted with cancer survivors (n = 15), managers (n = 12), and EAP professionals / psychologists (n = 4) from public and private sectors. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data to identify common and unique themes from the three participant groups. Results A range of drivers were identified including maintaining normality and regaining identity, which could act positively or negatively depending on survivors’ coping ability and self awareness. Analysis revealed communication difficulties in the workplace that impact on emotional and practical support. Negotiating an employee’s return is complex, influenced by the level of consultation with the employee and use of an ad hoc or structured process. Direct and indirect ways of supporting employees with cancer were identified, as was the need for colleague and manager support. Conclusion This study supports previous research findings of the impact of cancer on work, and reveals managers’ lack of knowledge on how to respond appropriately. The process of returning to work is complex, influenced by employees’ and managers’ attitudes, communication skills and coping abilities. Areas for workplace interventions to optimise support for the cancer survivor are described.