Purpose Coronary artery bypass grafting is the most frequently performed cardiac surgical procedure. Despite its benefits on survival and quality of life, it is associated with a considerable financial burden on society including sick leave. Our study aimed to explore the barriers that obstruct return to work after coronary artery bypass grafting. Methods We performed a qualitative study with in-depth interviewing of patients 6 months after their surgery. We included ten working patients and interviewed them and their spouses at home. The interviews were transcribed and two investigators independently searched the transcriptions for barriers that had obstructed return to work. Results Based on the interviews we were able to distinguish four main groups of barriers: 'personal', 'healthcare', 'work' and 'law & regulation.' The personal barriers were subgrouped in affective, physical, cognitive, social and individually determined factors. Conclusion In a qualitative study we showed that personal barriers as well as barriers regarding healthcare, work and law & regulation, were perceived by patients as important factors obstructing return to work after coronary artery bypass grafting. To overcome the identified barriers, the process of return to work could preferably be initiated during the hospital phase, started during cardiac rehabilitation, and coordinated by a case-managing professional.