Supporting a person returning to work

If you are a caregiver, you may also be the spouse, a family member, a trusted friend, or someone providing support to an individual who is recovering from an acquired brain injury. Overall, the information provided in this section is aimed at those who are in the home with the person returning to work. However, there are some tips and strategies that would also apply to others who may be supporting someone considering returning to work. When reading this information, the term “your partner” refers to the person you are supporting.

So how can you best encourage and provide support to someone returning to work? This will largely depend on the individual circumstances. However, through the experiences of others, we have gathered some tips, considerations and things to be aware of as you move forward.

When someone is planning to return to work, it can be an uncertain time. There are likely many different emotions involved as the person begins to think about re-engaging with their workplace, and what that will mean for them – as well as the routine that has been established. It’s important to remember that returning to work is a process, not an event. The process will begin before the person actual returns to their place of business, and may involve research, planning, goal development, meetings, and also some adjustments to everyday home life.

Related to returning to work, in order to better understand what your partner is experiencing, Brain Injury Canada has developed the Returning to work guidebook. Some of the resources may also be of interest to you as you embark on supporting your partner towards this goal.

Ways you can help

At the same time a person is considering returning to work, they may also be managing some on-going symptoms and after-effects of the brain injury. With a range of modifications to the work environment, many people have been able to return to work while concurrently continuing with their recovery.

It is important to realize that while your partner wants to work and contribute, they may also be dealing with reduced energy levels and decreased capacity once they return home. So how can you help? What can you do?

  • Support and encourage your partner, and at the same time allow for a degree of independence to return. Finding a good balance for this may need some practice. However, it’s worth the effort
  • Support can take different forms. Encouragement is one way. Offering and providing practical/hands-on assistance is another way. To the extent that you are able to, you may be able to take on more of the household chores and errands. If this is not possible, put some of these on hold or work out a revised routine
  • Tell your partner that it’s alright to let some things go around the house. The goal of returning to work is the top priority at this time, and there’s flexibility in home routines
  • Know that this will be a temporary situation. As the return to work routine is established and until things balance out, some frustration and chaos may come into your lives. Try not to take this personally. It’s extremely difficult for you both to navigate through this, and to not become dis-connected. Be assured that your support means a lot!
  • You cannot prepare for every eventuality. However you can agree to open communication and flexibility as you take on these new roles.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected to happen. If something does not go as planned, that’s alright. Be supportive, actively listen, and affirm the decision to return to work. When the time is appropriate, debrief/discuss the situation. Make some adjustments for next time. Determine if this was a one-time situation, or if it is a developing trend. If so, it might be time to revise something in the plan

You should also listen for signs of frustration. For example, phrases such as:

  • You just don’t understand!
  • How do they expect me to do that?
  • I can’t face that transit ride again tomorrow
  • I’m not so sure this was a good idea

If you perceive a higher level of frustration building, ask your partner if there is something they would like to discuss and/or if there is something that you can do to help out. In some situations the person may be feeling overwhelmed. Expressing some frustration can be a way for them to cope. In other situations, they may be dealing with a range of emotions/symptoms.

Ask direct and open-ended questions to determine where things are at, and together develop a plan to go forward.

Checking in: Set up a brief (5-minute) check-in process

Having a check-in set up with your partner is a good opportunity to stay in touch and to discuss how the process is going. It’s also a good tool to track trends, successes, and/or challenges that may come up. You can develop the frequency of the check-ins together. If daily is too much, you can modify the questions below to correspond to every three days to weekly. Following are some examples of questions you can ask:

  1. What went well today?
  2. Was there a particular highlight? Tell me about it.
  3. If there is one thing you would like to change about today, what would it be?
  4. How is your energy level now? Scale from 1 (being low) to 10 (being strong)
  5. What can I get you/what can I do for you?
  6. Is there anything else we should discuss?

Things to be aware of:

  • Conditions will change – perhaps daily. New demands may lead to reduced capacity and energy levels. Be prepared to address this if it comes up
  • Remember that you are dealing with an invisible disability. Because of this, your partner may look well. However, inside they may be struggling; energy may be crashing; they may seem unfocused or unable to engage
  • Allow some time for your partner to re-group and re-gain some space, strength, and energy. This may be achieved with quiet time or sleep
  • Pay attention to the energy triggers/patterns and maintain a watchful eye. Based on your observations, if your partner is doing too much and is becoming symptomatic, suggest making a change to the schedule or the routine
  • If possible, let others lighten your load so you can focus on your partner during this period of transition. Be sure to get needed rest and support for yourself
  • People can cope better when they have accurate, first-hand information about their situation and needs. Keep the channels of communication open
  • Your support and encouragement can help a partner stay on track, yet this new role can also trigger frustration on both sides. There may be times when engaging at any level just seems like too much. Recognize this, and agree to re-engage when possible. Things will eventually level off and you can resume your communication
  • Along with the home routine changing, it’s likely your social routine will as well. With your partners agreement, let others know that you are focusing on the return to work process, and for the time being you may not be available for extra social activities. Remember that this is a temporary step that you can adjust over time

As you and your partner work through this transition period, you may find that unexpected situations will come up. Be flexible and remain calm. Understanding that you may need to have a pre-determined plan B in mind, and/or an exit strategy to rely on, will go a long way to making the transition smoother for you both.

There is no doubt that it takes commitment and energy to move forward into a return to work process. With that in mind, we do not want to forget about your needs. Please be sure to take the time necessary for yourself to re-energize and re-group along the way.

Should you want to access resources and/or support networks available for caregivers/partner support, there are brain injury associations available to assist you.