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As a survivor of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), one of the most challenging aspects of recovery is returning to work. While it can be a daunting challenge to reinsert yourself into a job you may no longer feel qualified to perform, returning to work can improve overall quality of life, offset financial issues associated with TBI and help survivors overcome feelings of anxiety and social isolation.

While there are extensive benefits associated with returning to work, it is critical that you understand how TBI has affected your capabilities and evaluate the best approach to easing back into the workforce.

The following tips can help make your return to work a little more manageable:

1. Plan for a gradual return

When you feel ready to return to the workforce, start with small steps. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) outlines a gradual return to daily activities post-TBI, and the Brain Injury Association of America recommends a modified schedule for patients considering a return to work. Consider going back two or three mornings per week to start to allow yourself time to adjust. 

If you have been out of the workforce for some time, you may not be ready to search for a new position. Look for a volunteer position instead. These low-pressure opportunities can help you assess your abilities and comfort in the workplace, gauging your readiness for a job.

2. Realize it will take some effort

Expect your return to employment to take time and hard work. According to a Disability and Rehabilitation study exploring some of the challenges about returning to work after a TBI, successful reintegration requires sustained effort. At this point in your recovery, hard work will be familiar. Being committed to your return will ensure you put in the energy required to excel in your role.

3. Plan for accommodations

Based on the symptoms you experience after your brain injury, you may require accommodations in the workplace. Take the time to consider your needs and potential modifications that can help facilitate your return. 

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Memory loss: write down detailed notes to retain information; establish a routine at work to keep you on track.
  • Concentration issues: create a quiet place to work, such as in an office with the door closed; request written instructions for tasks.
  • Conversation difficulties: speak one-on-one with others; when possible, record conversations for improved recall.
  • Low energy: request a modified work schedule; start with shorter shifts and work up endurance; aim for early bedtimes to get enough sleep the day before.

In addition to any limitations these concerns may represent, be aware of any triggers that may need to be addressed in the workplace. Your employer can work with you to alleviate these concerns in your return.

4. Communicate your needs

When returning to work, you need to be your own advocate. Being open about your situation, especially with those in a supervisory position at work, ensures you have the right support. You don’t have to share any information you are uncomfortable with but being open and transparent can help your integration into the workforce. 

 In Canada, employers must make reasonable accommodations in the workplace to facilitate your return. Take any modifications you need (see Tip 3) and ensure your employer can have them in place before your first day back.

5. Be open to change

When considering a return to work, you may discover your previous role is no longer a good fit. According to the study published in Brain Injury, a substantial number of individuals with TBI are unable to return to their former work, or must return in an adjusted capacity. Be open to different opportunities or pursuing a line of new work that will allow you the flexibility you need.

Look back to our tip on a gradual return. Volunteering affords the opportunity to examine different aspects of work to find the right fit.

Ensure that you have a plan in place for your return to work to facilitate the process. These tips provide a starting point to become aware of the challenges ahead and help you navigate them successfully.

Download this guidebook developed by Brain Injury Canada to help you assess your readiness and plan your return.

References

National Center for Biotechnology Information, How many people return to work after acquired brain injury?: a systematic review.
Center for Disease Recovery, Recovery from Concussion | HEADS UP
Brain Injury Association of America, Adults & Brain Injury: Returning to Work
National Center for Biotechnology Information, Return to work following traumatic brain injury: trends and challenges
Brain Injury Canada, Returning to Work Guidebook