(Editor’s note: Writer, BEST guest blog contributor, and brain injury survivor, Isaac Peterson, shares what he’s learned about returning to work after a traumatic brain injury. Thank you, Isaac for the valuable information. KT)
Of all the things I’ve managed to accomplish since my traumatic brain injury (TBI), going back to work isn’t one of them. My doctor recommends against it, due to my problems concentrating for long periods, my continual sleepiness, lack of energy and stamina, and the fear I might have another seizure.
That’s surely not the situation with many TBI survivors, not as long as it’s necessary to have some sort of income. Steady income is a need most of us have, and for most people that means having a job. But if a TBI is making your life more difficult, going back to your job can be one of those really big difficulties—assuming your job has been held open for you.
I’m not qualified to tell you how you should go about returning to work, but I can pass along a few tidbits of things I’ve learned, and what friends have told me about their own experiences.
First, it seems to be a good idea to have a conference with your boss and explain what’s happened to you and how you think it might affect your job performance, if at all. If you think your TBI will affect your performance, ask what accommodations might be necessary to give you the best chance of doing your job to the best of your abilities.
Keep in mind there are anti-discrimination laws, like the Equality Act of 2010 and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Those acts require that employers make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities.
No matter how much you may want or need to go back to work, don’t rush it any more than is necessary—ease your way back in as much as possible. Your employer may be willing to give you time away from work to give you a bit of time to recover until you feel comfortable returning.
Some possible accommodations to negotiate with your employer are:
Working a shorter week, like only working three days a week or working from home.
Working fewer hours for a while and gradually work back into your regular schedule.
Taking more breaks during the day, particularly during those times when you feel especially weak or tired.
Starting with a reduced workload.
Redefining your job so you only have responsibilities within your limitations.
All of the above suggest that you might not be the only one making adjustments. Employers might still expect a certain production level, but a good employer will work with you.
Co-workers can be difficult since you have a disability they can’t see, and they may not understand when they see you being allowed to skate through your job, not realizing that you have an injury and may not be able to perform at your former level. Employers can help, if they are willing to help your co-workers understand your condition and why you need special consideration.
My friend Heidi emerged from a bad auto collision, but with a severe brain injury. She was working full-time, and tried to continue working for over half a year, though it was difficult.
Her productivity suffered, but her employer refused to make accommodation. As a person with a TBI, she found her employer had figured since Heidi’s injury was not visible or outwardly apparent, she couldn’t get her employer to understand or make allowances. The employer insisted on a high level of productivity, even though Heidi, very intelligent and capable, was not quite able to continue the level of productivity as before her accident.
Heidi ended up going on medical leave for over a year. She says she then was forced to fight in order to be allowed to return to work.
About resuming work, she says, “It’s still a struggle every day,” and it took nearly two years for her co-workers to see that she still has much to offer. “I’ve had to compensate and overcome in ways my coworkers will never understand or appreciate.”
Another friend of mine, Sue, was a special education educator when she took blow to the head when she was struck by a kicked ball.
Sue took five days off work, after which her doctor told her she could return to work for two hours a day for five months. From there she worked her way up to three hours a day and increased her work day by 30 minutes each month. It took her about two years to work herself back to full time.
Although Sue was eventually able to work her way back into her job, she still suffers from post traumatic stress (PTSD) from her injury. Her short term memory suffers. At first she carried a pencil and paper to remind her of directions she’s been given or what someone had said to her. She uses prescription medications to help her cope with the aftereffects of her brain injury.
Sue says the worst part of returning to work was the treatment she endured by co-workers who she said were not nice to her. Their attitude, she said, was, “You look just fine. Why can’t you do this? I know other people who got hit in the head and they’re fine; they don’t have the problems you have.” She ended up avoiding the co-workers to minimize her discomfort.
Her energy and stamina had decreased, especially during a particular time of the day. She was able to compensate by adjusting her schedule around those times.
Sue ended with some advice for TBI survivors returning to work: “Don’t push yourself, because you’ll take one step forward and two steps backward, and that’s not the right way to go.Just be grateful you have life and be grateful that you still have the opportunity and ability to help other people. Stay positive and hopeful.”
Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He also doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab. Peterson also welcomes reader comments. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.