Along with your recovery, you may also be experiencing some changes to your behaviours, including day-to-day routines, and communication patterns. These changes can be confusing to you and others, and you may wonder how they might impact your plans to return to work.
Your medical care team is in the best position to discuss your specific situation with you. However, there are some shared experiences from others who have returned to work that you may find helpful.
It is common for someone with a brain injury to have a need for reduced sensory stimulation. For example, a person may:
- Need to have the radio or television turned down or off
- Have challenges in noisy environments such as a movie theater; grocery and other retail stores; a bowling alley; a concert; an art gallery where there is an echo/din of voices; amusement parks
- experience disruption due to motion from being in a car or train
- Struggle with public transit and associated challenges
- Have troubles with travel due to the busyness of the airport and/or other transportation platforms
- Be triggered by sounds of children and the sudden movements of younger children
- Struggle with phones; distractions; overhead lights; computer screens; meetings and processing information can all create sensory challenges
Any number of environments or situations can be extremely difficult for someone with a brain injury, and can bring on symptoms. For example, sensory overload can result in:
- Extreme and debilitating fatigue
- Loss of focus and concentration
- Visual disturbances
- Communication difficulties
- Memory issues
Because of this, maintaining an active social life and keeping up with routine day-to-day activities may be challenging. In many cases, things that were once leisure activities, and moments of connection with family and friends, may now be associated with some degree of difficulty. As a result, an individual with a brain injury may find it necessary to periodically dis-engage from various activities and/or reduce the level of interaction they have with others.
Individuals & Employers
The same can be said when someone is returning to work. Given the sensory overload that can occur while on the job, when an individual returns they may need to take steps to reduce or eliminate certain sensory input. As a result, changing behaviours and communication patterns may be observed by others. Here are some examples of this:
- Before a brain injury
- Engaging in and maintaining conversation effortlessly
- Calm demeanor
- Leading meetings
- Organizing events and volunteering for committees
- Able to multi-task
- Thriving in fast-paced/deadline driven environment
- Participating in extra-curricular and/or other social events
- Following a brain Injury
- Individual may seem to be more distant
- Loss of patience at times
- Unsure of themselves
- Quieter and not taking on as much
- Slower to complete tasks
- Frustration at not being able to keep up and maintain schedules
- Withdrawn/dis-engaged with the social aspects of the workplace
These two descriptions are very different. Yet it is a reality that many face when returning to work. The good news is with appropriate planning and modifications, most employees will be able to settle in and re-gain their connections to the workplace.
Along with this, education about acquired brain injury and support for both the returning employee and their colleagues will help to ease any transition concerns that may arise.
You may also want to consider a vocational assessment which will help the employee to articulate their experiences and to find appropriate language to help them communicate with others around acquired brain injury and required supports. Vocational assessments also provide information that is impartial and equitable for all concerned. Most often, having this perspective can help to bring the stakeholders together to discuss mutual interests, and to engage in return to work planning. At the same time, concrete options for job accommodations can be identified.
Although efforts are made to support the workplace in the return to work process, sometimes unexpected situations can arise between colleagues. In the event that employees who have previously worked well together experience any difficulties, be sure to schedule some time, and calmly meet to discuss what’s happening.
- Make a commitment to find a solution that will be of benefit to all concerned
- Identify the respective interests that need to be met
- Be open and honest – engage in active listening and collaborative problem solving – keep the communication channels open
- Remember to strive to understand the situation each other is in
- Schedule more than one meeting if required
A key part of the accommodation process is to allow some time for the returning individual to work through their evolving situation, and to come to terms with any limits and/or changes to the routine, including the overall work environment, that may be needed. This is new territory, and will require patience, flexibility, trust, and possibly an adjustment to the accommodations that have been put in place over time.
Support from all sides, and allowing time and space for the process to take place will go a long way in welcoming back a colleague who is dealing with these changes, and also in supporting others alongside them in the workplace.