Managing employment after a brain injury – practical strategies for employers and prospective employers | Bolt Burdon Kemp Managing employment after a brain injury – practical strategies for employers and prospective employers | Bolt Burdon Kemp

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Managing employment after a brain injury – practical strategies for employers and prospective employers

Brain injuries vary in severity and can have diverse effects on individuals. These injuries can range from an invisible – although still disabling – injury, to a severe injury resulting in permanent physical, cognitive and psychological disability. Regardless of the severity of their injuries, starting or returning to work after a brain injury can be challenging for an employee. Here we look at some practical strategies employers can implement to benefit both the employer and employee.

Understanding the challenges

Employers play a crucial role in helping individuals transition back to work after a brain injury, whether they are returning to work with an earlier employer or starting at a new organisation. But I know, through volunteering with the Milton Keynes branch of Headway, the Brain Injury Association, individuals can face challenges in the workplace.

As well as being a volunteer, I’m an associate solicitor in the specialist adult brain injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp where my goal, in addition to obtaining compensation, is to support individuals back to work. Having had the privilege of speaking to many people with brain injury, I think there are a few ways employers can support those starting or returning to work.

It is essential employers and prospective employers understand the possible physical, cognitive, and psychological consequences of a brain injury. These may include concentration difficulties, debilitating fatigue, pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and problems with speech. They can also include memory issues, problems with multi-tasking and processing complex information as well as emotional and behavioural issues.

Recognising the effects of a brain injury are not always visible is key to avoiding misunderstandings and inadequate support, as is appreciating that each person is affected differently, depending on which parts of the brain were damaged.

Practical strategies

It is essential employers and prospective employers understand their legal obligations under The Equality Act 2010. While these detailed obligations are beyond the scope of this article, there are several practical strategies employers and prospective employers can adopt to help someone adjust to work after a brain injury and these are outlined below.

Interviewing strategies

An individual may or may not choose to disclose in an application form or during an interview they have suffered a brain injury but if they do, the fact of the brain injury itself should not become the subject of the interview. It is still important, though, when interviewing someone with a brain injury, to be mindful of their needs and approach the interview appropriately and inclusively in line with the legal duty to ensure a fair and non-discriminatory recruitment process.

During a recent “mock interview day” at Headway Milton Keynes, members with experience of employment or volunteering following their brain injury shared their thoughts on how to adjust the interview process to make it less stressful. They suggested the environment should be welcoming, with consideration given to the level of lighting, temperature, and background noise.

Taking the interview at a slower pace, repeating questions if asked, and providing breaks can be beneficial, they said.

Allowing the interviewee to refresh their memory from written notes and breaking the interview into smaller chunks using different formats such as emails, telephone, or virtual meetings, were all felt to be helpful options.

If the interview process includes a written test, prospective employers may need to consider whether the individual needs support with this and be guided by the interviewee.

It is not mandatory for prospective employees to discuss at the interview stage what adjustments they might need to perform the role, but some interviewees may wish to bring this up and it may be useful for an interviewer to ask what may be needed or found helpful.

Supporting strategies

There are many ways an employer can support an individual starting or returning to work following a brain injury. Some practical strategies employers can consider to help them comply with their legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities are listed below.

How does a brain injury affect an individual and what support is needed

Supporting an employee with a brain injury involves understanding their specific challenges and providing necessary accommodations. Employers can ask their employees how their brain injury affects them and what added support they feel they need.

Employers need to bear in mind that it is often only when an employee has begun or resumed employment, and they face challenges in the workplace not faced during their earlier rehabilitation, that their difficulties and support needs become apparent not only to others, but also to the injured person themself. They may struggle with fatigue or with tasks that were once familiar to them. This increased awareness can lead to depression and employers should be alert to this.

Make reasonable adjustments

Depending on the job, reasonable adjustments for someone with a brain injury could include:

Flexible Working Arrangements: Allowing reduced or flexible working hours or the ability to work remotely can help the employee manage fatigue, appointments, and any lingering symptoms related to the brain injury.

Assistive Technology: Providing access to assistive technology or tools, such as screen readers, speech recognition software, or specialised keyboard and mouse options or adapted physical equipment, can support the employee in performing their job tasks effectively.

Adapted Work Environment: Adjusting lighting, reducing noise levels, providing ergonomic furniture, or creating a quiet space to work or for breaks can ensure the work environment is conducive to the employee’s needs.

Modified Duties: Changing the employee’s duties or responsibilities can help accommodate any cognitive or physical limitations resulting from the brain injury. This may involve reallocating tasks, adjusting or reducing workloads, reducing the level of competing demands that an individual might find difficult to manage, allowing more time to complete tasks and reducing targets and deadlines or providing additional support such as proof-reading and/or checking tasks after they are completed.

Training and Support: Offering training and support can help the employee transition back to work smoothly. This could involve refresher training on job tasks, guidance on managing symptoms, or access to counselling or occupational therapy services.

Involve occupational health professionals

An early referral to an occupational health professional can provide valuable insights and guidance for both the employee and the employer. Occupational health assessments and recommendations on how to best support the return to work can help the employer create an appropriate support plan and ensure that it remains appropriate as the employee continues their recovery and adjusts to working life.

The occupational health adviser can keep up to date with the individual’s medical condition and treatment, help deal with absences due to their condition, and manage risks to keep the individual and others safe in the workplace.

Phase the return

A phased return, with regular reviews, can be a useful tool for both the employer and the employee returning after a brain injury.

A phased return is a gradual and structured approach to reintroducing an injured employee back to work. This process involves starting with reduced hours or workload and gradually increasing them over time until the employee is back to full capacity.

For the employee, a phased return offers several benefits. It allows them to gradually ease back into their role, building confidence and reducing anxiety about their ability to perform.

It gives an opportunity for them to assess their capabilities and limitations in a real work environment. This allows both the employee and employer to decide what tasks they can manage effectively and where more support may be needed.

It helps to manage fatigue, a common symptom after a brain injury, by preventing the individual from becoming overwhelmed and ensuring they can sustain their energy throughout the workday.

By incrementally increasing responsibilities, any challenges, or difficulties the individual may face can be found early on. This allows for adjustments to be made to support their successful integration back into the workplace. It provides a structured pathway for the individual to adapt to their work environment, routines, and responsibilities at a pace that suits their recovery needs.

For the brain-injured individual, a phased return can be a supportive and empowering process that allows them to regain their confidence, assess their capabilities, and manage their symptoms, especially fatigue, effectively. It also ensures that their return to work is sustainable and conducive to their overall well-being and recovery.

For the employer, implementing a phased return offers several benefits. Not only does it serve as a reasonable adjustment to ensure compliance with legal obligations under The Equality Act 2010, but it also shows a commitment to supporting employee well-being.

By closely supervising the employee’s progress during the phased return, employers can spot any challenges or issues early on. Timely interventions and adjustments can then be made to support the employee and minimise potential health and well-being risks.

A well-structured phased return can help prevent setbacks in an employee’s recovery, reducing the likelihood of extended absences or frequent sick leave. This gradual process supports productivity and ensures that tasks are completed effectively, even as the employee transitions back to full-time work.

Overall, this approach fosters a positive and inclusive work environment contributing to a more stable and consistent workforce.

Hold regular catchups and check-ins

Clear and open communication with the employee to understand their needs and concerns is key to supporting employees with brain injuries.

It is not possible to predict how a brain injury will affect someone and their ability to work. Their condition may evolve over time and, in some cases, they may not make a full recovery.

Regular catchups play a crucial role in a successful phased return to work by promoting communication, checking progress, providing support, and maintaining engagement. They allow supervisors to discuss progress and adjust the phased return plan based on their employee’s performance and wellbeing, and provide an opportunity for the employee to receive support, guidance, and feedback during their transition back to work.

Individuals with a brain injury can often feel isolated from friends, family and colleagues. While employers may not know what pressures someone is facing outside work due to their brain injury, regular catchups can at least help the individual feel supported from an employment perspective.

The individual may or may not want you to reveal their injury and their needs to other employees. If they choose to keep this private, employers will need to be mindful of how other employees treat them, avoiding accusations of underperforming, or making inappropriate or offensive comments. Training sessions on disability can help manage the risk of these issues occurring.

Key takeaways

In conclusion, flexibility, understanding, and open communication are essential in managing employment after a brain injury.

By supporting employees with compassion and accommodations, employers can facilitate a successful return to work for individuals recovering from brain injuries, for the benefit of employer and employee.

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