Why volunteering can be stepping stone into work after brain injury

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People with a brain injury may benefit from voluntary work to ease them back into the working environment after a period of leave. With this week (1-7 June) being Volunteers’ Week, Suzanne Trask highlights what it could entail.

In addition to my day job as a brain injury lawyer, I’m a regular volunteer for charities, both as a trustee of The Silverlining Brain Injury Charity and offering an extra pair of hands both by video and in person. It is such varied and rewarding work.

Those with brain injuries are on different journeys in relation to work, as each person and injury is very different. We know that, after brain injury, taking a voluntary role can be a good stepping stone towards paid employment. It may also be that, for any of a number of reasons, someone decides that, after trying voluntary work, going back into paid work is simply not for them. We know that work of any kind can be powerful in supporting increasing independence and rehabilitation.

Anyone can suffer a brain injury and it can be at any point in life. Someone may have been just starting their working life, be at the peak of a successful career, or be heading towards retirement. If someone had previously been in a fast-paced job, they may be worried about trying to go back into their previous profession. What if they can’t do a full day’s work without fatigue setting in? What about work politics; how will they cope?

Someone’s personality may have altered – people often report being a ‘new me’ after a brain injury. They may struggle with the sensory overload of an office environment, or group discussion. They may equally struggle with the question of what would happen if they discover that they can’t do their previous job any more. They miss the challenge, satisfaction and comradery, and find it frustrating that it just isn’t the same any more. How can they start on the journey back to working, and find out what will be possible? Volunteering may be a valuable first step.

Build confidence and gain experience

Returning to work, where someone can, is an important step in the rehabilitation process for those who have suffered a serious injury. It’s important to bear this in mind if you are in the position of looking at their CV. A voluntary role is an important stage and shows that they have considered seriously how to go into to a working environment. Taking this step too soon could mean a setback in self-confidence, so it is important that it takes place at the right time. Volunteering is a valuable stepping stone, without committing to a paid role which is likely to be less flexible.

They are likely to face some anxieties around returning to work – how will I cope with the number of hours, or be able to concentrate? Will I be able to cope with interacting with people, and what will happen if I upset someone by accident?

Their injury and feelings around work will guide the best type of voluntary role for them. For example, if fatigue develops after concentrating for several hours, starting a role which only requires two hours of work on working days will help, so that they can find out how this affects them. If the hours can be increased over time, and they would like to do so, it should be done carefully. Fatigue is not like tiredness. It will mean that someone is not able to function, and a long day may mean that they are so worn out that they need the following day to rest. It may or may not improve over time, and may fluctuate.

Wanting to get back to paid work and needing to take it in stages may cause frustration. It’s helpful to think of volunteering as a way to build up tolerance and confidence so that the next step into paid work is easier.

It also doesn’t need to be in the same area of work that they were in previously. Someone with a brain injury will need to work out their new needs and capabilities, and exploring new skills or a new area of work could be really helpful. Often people do take a different direction after their injury, for lots of reasons. A brain injury is such a life changing event that you may feel like a changed person. Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to do the same things again.

Volunteering for the charity sector is often a helpful way to start, particularly when the charity is one with an understanding of brain injuries.  This can provide a more relaxed work environment, and can also be a way of meeting others in a similar position.  They will understand and empathise with the challenges being faced and provide the space and time to adapt.  It could also be an opportunity to gain insight into how other people are finding their return to work.

Headway the brain injury association has some fantastic resources for those with brain injuries, their families and anyone interested in this area, with useful links and advice. At Bolt Burdon Kemp we are specialists in supporting those with brain injuries with their legal claims, and in their rehabilitation.

Suzanne Trask

About Suzanne Trask

Suzanne Trask is a partner and head of the adult brain injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.
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