Process for returning to work | Bolt Burdon Kemp Process for returning to work | Bolt Burdon Kemp

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Section #3

Process for returning to work

In this section we cover the process of returning to work for an employee who has suffered a brain injury. As an employer it is important to consider what the working hours and breaks will be and there also needs to be a "Back to Work" Plan. Find out more below.


What needs to happen before the employee starts working again?

The previously mentioned occupational health assessment should identify the ongoing physical, cognitive and emotional difficulties that a brain-injured employee has, and these will need to be taken into consideration when planning the return to work. Specifically, in planning the return to work, employers and employees will need to discuss:

  • Whether they can return to work in the same role. If not, what kind of role would be suitable, and can this be accommodated at the place of work?
  • Working hours and breaks
  • Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 - putting in place reasonable adjustments for employees who have a disability.
  • The ‘Back to Work’ plan

Both sides may be assisted in this discussion if the employee is supported by a colleague, trade union representative, friend or family member of their choosing. It is also usually helpful to take notes of the meeting and allow the employee time to consider and comment upon the notes (with the help of a companion if necessary), to make sure that everyone has understood what has been discussed and decided upon. Timeframes for next steps can help to alleviate an employee’s concerns about what is going to happen, and these should be recorded in any notes. If the timeframes cannot be met, then the employee (or employer) should be informed about this, the reason for the delay and what the new anticipated timeframe is.


Same role or different role?

It is important to consider the particular employee’s needs when assessing whether they can return to their previous role. Even someone with a relatively minor brain injury may need to move to a different role if it’s not possible, with reasonable adjustments, for them to continue in their previous role.

For example, an accountant who has suffered a stroke resulting in ongoing physical disability, but with their pre-injury intellect intact, may well be able to return to their pre-injury role provided they have the correct assistive equipment and support.

Conversely, a plumber suffering a similar injury may not be able to return to the same role because of the physical demands of the job. A truck driver who suffers from epilepsy following a brain injury won’t be able to continue in the same role, given the restrictions on driving for epilepsy sufferers.

Employers are under a duty to consider alternative employment for employees who are unable to continue in their previous role and if suitable employment is available, to offer it to the employee. For example, if the truck driver in the above example works for a distributor that also runs warehouses, they may be able to work in an administrative role in the warehouse instead.

Employees who have been offered a different role by their employer should seek specialist advice on their options if they have concerns. Employers need to remain aware of their legal obligations, and should seek advice from a specialist in employment law if they are unsure about the process of offering an alternative role to an employee.


Do employees need a phased return to work and/or a change to their working hours?

An employee who has a brain injury may need to gradually increase their working days/ hours to ease their transition back into working life. For most, their workload will need to be reduced, even if this is just in the short term. This is known as a phased return to work.

A phased return to work can also include a mix of working from home and working from an office/on site, if that is required by the job. This can allow the employee time to get used to working again, without the added pressure of having to travel. Whether this will help the employee will depend on their individual circumstances, including the views of the employee.

An employee with a brain injury may need their working hours to be reduced on a permanent basis. There are many reasons why an employee’s working hours may need to change following a brain injury. It may be a reasonable adjustment to arrange for the employee to job share with another employee or to recruit someone for this purpose.

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Top Tip

if an employee has mobility issues and uses public transport to get to work, it may assist them to reduce or alter their working hours so that they can avoid travelling during rush hour.

As another example, if an employee suffers from mental fatigue as a consequence of their brain injury, they may not be able to work a full day, and may need to work half-days or another working hours arrangement suited to their needs.

An employee may also require more flexibility or a reduction in their working hours to allow them to attend medical appointments or deal with ongoing symptoms.

Employers will need to consider whether it is reasonable and possible to make such changes in line with the needs of the business; this is a balancing exercise, but the employer must consider the impact on the employee if they lose their employment when deciding where this balance lies as to what is reasonable.

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In Summary

When considering the return of an employee with a brain injury, it is very important for employers to take specialist advice on their legal obligations from an employment lawyer.


Can hours be increased over time?

If an employee has returned to work part-time/on reduced hours and feels they have the stamina and ability to increase their hours, this can happen, so long as both employer and employee are in agreement, and it is safe for the employee to do this. Sometimes employees returning to work after brain injury work excessively to try and prove their worth, without appreciating that the approach is likely to be unsustainable. The employer should be mindful that the employee might not recognise their limitations.

If it is the employer that would like to increase the employee’s hours, they should be careful to ensure that the employee is ready and happy for their hours/workload to increase.

It might be appropriate to get updated occupational health advice if an increase in hours is being considered.

It is a good idea for employers and employees to meet regularly, especially around the period of re-adjustment to work, so that they can keep up to date on how the employee is doing and how they are feeling about their hours/workload. Working practices and hours should be reviewed and may need adjusting a few times before the right balance is reached.

Employers may observe that an employee finds it hard to accept that they cannot work at the same pace as before. If there seems to be a mismatch between what an employee wants to do and what they appear to be capable of doing (i.e. a lack of awareness about their changed level of ability), this will need to be handled very carefully. A further independent occupational health assessment may help to achieve the clarity that is needed.

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Top Tip

A supportive work environment with open lines of communication is far more likely to assist the employee to achieve their full potential.


The 'Back to Work' plan

The first few weeks back at work is likely to be an intense period of adjustment for a brain-injured employee.  They will be working out how to adapt to do the job and may feel particularly anxious and overwhelmed. Employers should try and create an open work environment so that the employee feels comfortable sharing how they are feeling. This will allow the employer to manage their business appropriately whilst ensuring the employee receives the support they need.

Anyone who has been away from work for an extended period of time due to a career break, illness or parental leave will know that there can be a lot to catch up with on their return. Employers should have a ‘back to work’ action plan in place to help make the employee’s return to work as easy as possible. They should discuss the content of this with the employee to identify any other areas/matters that the employee would find it helpful to be caught-up/refreshed on; involving the employee and listening to their views is one of the best ways to develop a positive return to work. Catching up with changes in the workplace is likely to be more challenging for an employee who has suffered a brain injury. Prior to the return to work the employer should think about what refresher training the employee will need, and whether there have been any changes to processes, technology, or anything else while the employee has been off work. Update training may need to take into account reasonable adjustments to the new processes/technology. It may be difficult to assess exactly what extra training the employee will require, so this should be kept under close review when an employee returns to work, in consultation with the employee. Where a need is identified, training should be provided as soon as possible. The ‘back to work’ plan may also include a staged return, with flexibility to alter the plan depending on how things go.


Do they need a buddy?

The buddy can act as the main point of contact for the employee which may help them access any support they need. The employee may feel less worried about asking questions to their buddy or raising any issues they are having with them. The buddy should have clear guidance as to what their role involves and should ideally be positive about accepting this important position.

In terms of choice of buddy, it is often best to select someone from the same team as the employee and at a similar level where possible. It may be useful for the buddy to be trained on the effect of brain injuries and on how it has affected this colleague of theirs, in particular.

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Top Tip

A buddy system is a great way of helping to reintroduce the employee to work. They can ensure that the employee’s return is gradual and that they are not feeling overwhelmed.


Are extra management meetings needed?

It is probably a good idea to have more regular management meetings while the employee is re-adjusting to work.

Regular management meetings will help both employer and employee to identify any issues early on and to make any changes required. They will also provide an opportunity to review any arrangements or adaptations that have been made, to see what is working and what is not. Either party may also have new ideas about further changes that could help them day-to-day.

Regular and open communication can really help both employees and employers to feel supported and achieve their best.

The reason for these meetings should be explained to the employee, so they do not feel that they are being micro-managed or put under unnecessary pressure.


We're here to help you.

We hope you find this guide useful, whether you are reading this from the perspective of an employer, or if you have had a brain injury and are contemplating returning to work after a brain injury.

If you would like to speak to a member of our brain injury team about an ‘employment after brain injury’ related query, please complete the contact form below, or give us a call on 020 3411 5839.

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