Navigating transition & change

In the time leading up to a return to work, a number of factors along with a range of emotions will come into play. It is important to acknowledge that the job interruption you have experienced has been unexpected, and unwelcome. As you begin to think about returning to work, understanding the stages of transition can be helpful.

Transition is defined as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another, or; a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another. 

The following are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Transition is an internal process and is the way we come to terms with change
  • Transition is letting go of the way things used to be and re-orienting yourself to the way things are now
  • Effective transition means doing what you can to make a potentially difficult process less painful and disruptive
  • Although it may be difficult and unwelcomed, transition can be an opportunity for personal discovery and/or growth
  • Transition is a productive process. It may help you to identify strengths and emerging areas of interest.  It may also provide you with an opportunity to gain perspective about your emotional responses and behaviors, and how you can develop goals to support your efforts.  

What is a stage?

A stage is a period or step in a process, activity, or development. It’s normal to move back and forth from stage to stage, and to see yourself in more than one of these stages at the same time. These stages, which are reviewed below, can relate to both the pre and post return to work process, as well as the overall on-the-job experience.

The stages in return to work


This stage brings with it a lot of turmoil and uncertainty.  For the most part, there is an inward focus that takes place.

The change you have experienced is unwelcomed, and because of this it is natural to be comparing how you were able to function prior to the brain injury to how you are functioning now. You cannot believe this has happened to you. Part of this is rooted in the unexpected event, which for now, has thrown things into a state of turmoil and uncertainty.

This is a critical stage. It’s where many individuals deny reality and attempt to push through their symptoms in order to continue to work. This action can be detrimental to your overall recovery and well-being and will likely result in set-backs to your timeline to return to employment.  In many cases, it would also be ignoring the advice of medical professionals and/or others who are advising you about your treatment.  With new research continually emerging around brain injury treatment and protocol, it is doubly important to ensure that you are following medical advice about time off and returning to work.  

It is important to recognize the complex nature of this situation, while at the same time understand that in many cases, with appropriate awareness, support and planning, you maybe be in a position to return to the workplace sooner than you may imagine.


  • Time for the recovery process, and to follow your doctors/care provider advice
  • A chance to prepare yourself and to take in the information being provided to you
  • Emotional support

As time goes on, you may begin to wonder if you are ever going to be well again. You may be getting impatient with your fluctuating pace of recovery.

You may wonder:

  • Why is this taking so long?
  • Maybe I’m not getting the right medical care. Who should I be listening to?
  • What if this doesn’t improve, what am I going to do?  
  • What’s happening to me?
  • I can’t do this

When everyone around you is carrying on with their daily routines, it’s normal to feel forgotten or left behind. Outwardly, you may look the same, and it is not readily apparent to others that you are dealing with a range of symptoms. Constantly trying to let others know how you are feeling can be exhausting.

In the context of returning to work, you may begin to doubt your abilities, and to tell yourself that you cannot take this step. Things may become muddled and interacting with others can be difficult. Because of this, you may not have the confidence to contact your workplace, and you may want to withdraw from others, and not have your colleagues see you this way.

Try to exercise patience with yourself and others, and realize that as you are trying to find your way, they are as well. If you cannot let go of the past way of doing things, or how things used to be, you may begin to feel defeated and doubtful about your abilities. This can take a great deal of energy away from your recovery and healing process.


  • Factual information
  • Calm, supportive communication
  • To the extent possible, some sense of stability, along with help to work through your concerns 
  • Perspective

As processing the situation continues, you may find that you are beginning to think more about returning to work and/or what steps you might be in a position to take in order to make that happen. Overall you may have a range of symptoms and challenges that you are coping with. However, at the same time you may also be trying to find ways to expand your thinking and to become open to exploring new possibilities and options. Perhaps you are finding new ways of looking at things, or you would like to explore a new way of doing something. Your thinking may become more balanced in terms of what you are telling yourself, shifting from feeling isolated and defeated to looking for ways to bring back in some positive thinking and approaches.

Some of the questions you might be asking yourself may include:

  • How can I make this work?
  • What are the positive aspects of this situation?
  • What are some of the gains that I have made?
  • How can I begin?
  • Okay, I think I can try it

You may find that you are reaching out more to others and that you are becoming more willing to ask for and accept support. With some modifications to your routine, you may also be achieving some successes, which in turn may propel you to want to re-engage with your workplace.

Be aware that you are in a learning curve with respect to your recovery and energy. Be sure to take the time necessary to continue exploring possibilities, and at the same time inform yourself about on-the-job accommodation that may be available to you, and ways that you can plan and create the conditions for a successful return to work. Much of this will involve research; establishing energy management boundaries; and developing concrete goals and planning.  


  • Encouragement
  • Understanding that everyone is learning
  • Involve others in planning and research
  • Recognizing and acknowledging successes in your efforts

As you move forward with plans to return to work, you may realize that you are focusing more on the future, rather than holding onto the routine prior to your brain injury, and wishing things were the same as then. This is a positive step forward.

You may be ready to establish new routines, test out your energy and productivity levels, and within this develop renewed balance between what you are telling yourself you are capable of accomplishing, and the actual steps you need to take to accomplish your goals.

You may be thinking:

  • Where am I headed?
  • What can I do to best support myself?
  • What steps can I take to optimize my energy and outlook?
  • What do I need in practical/concrete terms?
  • It feels really great to want to try this out
  • I’m feeling more hopeful than I was previously

In the beginning, it will be important to take a holistic and measured approach. The return to work process is one component to your overall well-being, and moving too quickly may result in a set-back to your plans. In order to avoid this, you can develop realistic boundaries around:

  • Overall energy requirements and activity output
  • Time and emotional commitments to others
  • Level of engagement with your workplace

Develop some short term goals, and assess your ability to achieve these. Make adjustments as required.


  • Communication and information related to the return to work process
  • Concrete planning
  • Supportive conditions, including at home and on the job for advancing your efforts
  • Understand that it very well may take more than one attempt to return to work
At the workplace

An adjustment period will take place after you return to work, during which time your supervisor and colleagues will become familiar with the accommodations in place. The return to work is a process, not an event. Recovery and adjustment will be taking place as you re-enter your workplace and throughout the on-the-job experience. With this in mind, it’s important to realize that you and your employer are working towards a common goal of re-establishing your overall employment relationship.

If you are comfortable with it, supervisors and colleagues can be provided with factual information about brain injury, and/or any other platforms of education that you believe might be beneficial or of value.

At the same time, collaborating on a job accommodation plan, which can include an education component, can be a rewarding and valuable experience.  As your colleagues observe your commitment to the process, and your employer’s demonstrated support in creating the conditions for a successful re-entry, it will go a long way to establishing trust and upholding core values.

The stages involved in the return to work process will not be the same for everyone. These guidelines are meant to help you to place yourself in the general transition process.  

The hope is that should the need arise, welcoming back others who may find themselves in a similar position in the future can be achieved in a healthy and supported way, and that others will understand your experience and value your efforts.