Employees returning to work after a stroke face “invisible” barriers

“Invisible” impairments, such as memory loss, concentration problems and fatigue, can be key barriers that stop people returning to work after a stroke, according to a study from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London.

The findings, published in the journal BMJ Open, have suggested more needs to be done to make stroke survivors, their GPs and employers aware of the difficulties survivors may face.

To explore the experiences of people who have returned to work after a stroke, researchers analysed the archives of TalkStroke, a UK-based online forum hosted by the Stroke Association, across a seven-year period, between 2004 and 2011.

The researchers searched more than 20,000 posts for the phrases “return to work” and “back at work” and identified 60 people who had posted about the issue during the given period.

Almost all those who managed to return to work still experienced a range of residual invisible impairments, including memory and concentration problems and fatigue.

On the online forums, some commenters described the problems with looking “normal”, but not feeling the same way and how this led to a lack understanding among co-workers, and also to their own sense of feeling a “fraud”.

Having a supportive employer helped people ease themselves back into work and enabled survivors to make adjustments, including a gradual return to work, reduced hours and working from home.

But when employers were unsupportive, survivors found this particularly distressing and stressful; some posters even reported being bullied by colleagues.

Some commenters gave specific advice, such as recommending speaking to their GP, but awareness was low of what to do and where to seek advice if stroke-related problems persisted long term.

Kate Pieroudis, manager of the Stroke Association’s Back to Work Project, said: “Employers can have a vital part to play in helping stroke survivors back into the workplace and on the road to recovery. Stroke affects every person differently. In some cases, the long-term effects of the condition, such as communication problems or memory loss, may only become apparent in a work environment.

“With the right support, many stroke survivors can and do go back to work successfully. Planning with employers is vital so they understand how a stroke has affected an individual, and can put necessary support in place,” she said.

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