Supporting employees at work after a brain injury can be difficult. Suzanne Trask looks at the legal and practical considerations.
Headway, the brain injury charity, estimates that there were 348,934 hospital admissions for head injuries between 2013 and 2014.
A brain injury may occur because of a blow to the head – for example, in a car accident – or another kind of accident at home or on holiday. Or it may be caused by a stroke, or an infection affecting the brain, such as meningitis. When an employee returns to work after suffering a brain injury, it can be difficult to understand how to help them get back into work and move forward in their career without specialist advice.
The effects of a brain injury are wide ranging and depend on a number of factors, including the type and severity of the injury. Often a person with a minor or moderate brain injury can look unaffected, so it can be difficult to appreciate any difficulties or needs that they have straight away.
When someone has suffered a more severe brain injury, they may be unable to return to work. However, in many situations it will be possible for someone with a brain injury to return to do valuable work, whether it is in the same or a different role.
What do you imagine someone who has suffered a brain injury to look like? How do you think you would know that they had suffered an injury? True, it may have caused physical problems with mobility, which you would quickly notice. However, they may have suffered less obvious problems such as sensory impairment, fatigue, balance problems, headaches and dizziness. Extreme fatigue is common.
The injury may also mean that they have problems such as anxiety, irritability, personality changes and mood swings. These can be difficult to manage in the workplace, given that an employer will need to both enable the returning employee to adjust to working life, as well as take into account the needs of their colleagues.
Dos and don’ts of considering adjustments
- Do take a positive approach towards supporting the employee by assessing thoroughly what adjustments could reasonably be made.
- Do discuss the situation fully and openly with the employee and seek his or her views on what changes to working practices, physical alterations, or auxiliary aids might be helpful.
- Do make a full and proper assessment of the employee’s abilities.
- Do seek medical advice about the effects of the employee’s condition, and his or her abilities.
- Do give full and fair consideration to all reasonable possibilities.
- Don’t view the employee as being a nuisance.
- Don’t make assumptions about the employee’s abilities, or about what he or she would find helpful.
- Don’t rush into any decision in respect of an employee who has become disabled without giving proper consideration to all circumstances.
- Don’t overlook the employee’s skills, experience and general positive qualities.
Given that their social skills may also be affected, the person with a brain injury may find it difficult to interact with colleagues, or even behave inappropriately as the injury may have affected their inhibition. If this happens, again the employer will have to carefully balance their needs with those of other employees when deciding how to manage the situation.
The employee may also face the quite overwhelming psychological process of coming to terms with the consequences of their injury. It may be extremely difficult to accept the slow recovery process, and that some aspects of the injury are actually never going to get better. This can place a huge strain on personal relationships, with separation and divorce being common after a brain injury.
In terms of their ability to carry out work tasks, a brain injury may also affect the way someone thinks, learns and remembers things. It may also affect a person’s motivation and concentration. Someone with a brain injury returning to work may have problems with timekeeping or organisational skills. There are, however, many systems and work aids that can be put into place to help.
It is important to remember that the effect of a brain injury varies massively between individuals. You cannot assume what someone can or cannot do without exploring this carefully with them. It is a good idea to arrange a meeting to discuss this.
You should also consider how flexible you can be to help facilitate a return to work. For example, could they come back gradually, do less hours, take more breaks, have a smaller workload or take a different role? It is also important to find out what (if anything) the employee wants to disclose to their colleagues about their injury.
The Equality Act 2010 protects employees and jobseekers with a disability from discrimination. The Act also requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are disabled. Advice on these obligations should be sought from a specialist employment solicitor.
Suzanne Trask is a partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp.