Employers failing to protect staff with brain injuries

A recent survey showed that many staff returning to work after a brain injury felt there was a lack of support and understanding from their employers.

Effects of brain injury vary widely

The survey was conducted by Headway, the UK-wide charity that works to improve life after brain injury, and investigated the experiences of people returning to work after sustaining a brain injury.

Recent data suggests that there were 348,934 UK admissions to hospital with acquired brain injury in 2013-14. This equates to around 956 per day, a significant proportion of whom are likely to be of working age.

The effects of brain injury vary widely according the part of the brain that is damaged and the severity of the injury.

Even a minor head injury can temporarily impair brain function, leading to difficulties such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, depression, irritability and memory problems. While most people are symptom-free within two weeks, some can experience problems for months or years.

More severe brain injuries have more pronounced long term effects and may affect personality, relationships and the ability to lead an independent life. People who have sustained and survived a serious brain injury need rehabilitation and support and help in the community.

Returning to work after brain injury

Headway's survey recognises that work is an important and necessary part of many people's lives, and that returning to work after brain injury may play a key role in recovery and regaining independence.

The charity's report also suggested that, depending on individual circumstances and the effects of the injury, returning to work can be challenging. An informed and supportive employer can do much to ensure the return is successful.

However, the survey found that many employers often do not understand the subtle, hidden effects of brain injury. Many employers have no experience or training on the subject.

Support, help and understanding

Many of those who took part in the survey had been reluctant to tell the HR department their full story as they believed they would not have been understood.

As the unique nature of each brain injury case means that symptoms and recovery periods vary widely, this diversity means that there can be no "one-size-fits-all" when it comes to HR legislation. With no clear guidance, employers rarely conduct occupational health and vocational assessments when an employee returns to work after a brain injury.

Strategies which ought to put in place to ensure that the person does not become overwhelmed and unable to cope may include:

  • Working closely with the employee to help form an understanding of the unique nature of his injury. Employers should not be afraid to ask the individual about the impact his injury has had on what he is able to do, and what he may find difficult.
  • A home visit from managers may be included, where expectations and any necessary changes to the job role are discussed to allow a smooth transition.
  • A more focused approach through a phased scheme to allow an employee to return to work at a gradual pace to suit his recovery. This would be instead of the usual short-term adjustment to working hours and take account of the employee's possible deficits of attention and concentration.
  • Continued consultation with the employee as his recovery continues, to review what is working for him and what support or adaptations are needed now and in the future.
  • Involving other staff members by conducting workshops to discuss mental and physical health issues will help create a better understanding of the practicalities that arise for their colleague's return to work.

Reintegration to the workplace may be difficult and costly. Although the responsibility to support an employee with a brain injury may lay with the employer, governing bodies ought also to make information on the subject more accessible.