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Tips for returning to work after brain injury

After suffering from a brain injury, you will face all sorts of challenges when going back to work. Your bruised brain pretty much works overtime to process everything that's going on around you and chances are, your executive functions may have been altered. The level of fatigue you are experiencing as you are recovering is another factor that needs to be managed very carefully. So how does work fit into all of this? It seems like the brain already has its share of work to do to heal right?

To be perfectly honest, at first, work absolutely gave my bruised brain heck of a hard time. But to me, work is also an aspect of my life that stimulates me, an aspect of my life that I find rewarding and let's face it, the additional dollars at the end of the month are always helpful. We all have bills to pay and all want to offer the best opportunities for our family to thrive. Returning to work is also part of helping the brain to recover...I see it as physio for my brain. If you don't stimulate it and try to operate it in various ways, well chances are you may slow down its recovery process.

First things first: Executive function explained simply

Executive functions of the brain refer to skills and mental processes that allow us to successfully plan, reason, problem solve, sustain attention, self-regulate behaviors, tune out stimuli, remember stuff and the ability to easily switch from one task to another aka multi-tasking. The thing is that many of those skills/mental processes occur simultaneously. If any of those areas have been affected, you can easily see how it may have a domino effect on the rest. Everyone will be affected slightly differently and to various degrees but one thing is for sure, for a while, your injured brain will struggle to process things as efficiently as before and as an individual, you will have to adapt to this new reality.

In a work context, your executive function plays a crucial role in your ability to operate efficiently in your role and in your workplace. For someone with a brain injury, your executive function is likely to be challenged left and right...all the time! Those skills/mental processes use A LOT of brain energy and from personal experience, I've found that there is nothing more taxing on a recovering brain than trying to get the executive function going.

So how do you manage this very fine line between stimulating the brain enough to help it recover whilst not overdoing it and risking shooting yourself in the foot?

For someone with a brain injury, this is a million dollar question for which we constantly seek an answer. But the real and only answer is that only the person recovering can come up with an answer that WORKS BEST FOR THEM.

So any tips on how best to manage you return to work?

Although there are lots of similarities between brain injury survivors, each individual will have residual effects that are specific to them. The most important thing is to have health professionals such as neurologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, only to name a few, assess whether you are ready to go back to work and in which capacity.

Fatigue is one of the most common side effect that you will have to manage daily and sometimes, fatigue is managed an hour at a time. As it will be the case for any activity that you will be reintroducing into your life, you will also have to resume going back to work slowly and increase your hours gradually. You will discover pretty quickly the importance of allowing yourself enough time to rest as you will find that cognitive stimulation will tire your bruised brain immensely. I found that getting access to an Occupational Therapist early on in the piece has been super helpful to identify how my own brain was going to be challenged when returning to work. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and limitations will allow you to implement the necessary tweaks to make your gradual return to work successful. Below are some ideas to help initiate this process. You may need to consider:

  • reviewing your work schedule to allow for better fatigue management

  • modifying your tasks so you can focus on things are that familiar,

  • focusing on one task at a time else you may find multi-tasking overwhelming,

  • breaking a task into smaller pieces and establishing an order of priority prior to starting,

  • allowing yourself more time to complete a task to limit unnecessary stress,

  • asking your manager to provide clear instructions regarding the task to complete,

  • introducing tasks that are repetitive where possible to take some of the thinking out of the equation,

  • taking lots of note as you may be more likely to forget some things,

  • reintroducing meetings very slowly as they are very cognitively demanding and are likely to wipe you out,

  • double/triple checking the work you produce to ensure that you are happy with its standard and that no silly errors have cropped in,

  • having other people review your work and provide constructive feedback can be very useful to identify areas you need to pay more attention to.

Other more simple tips that I have found very useful include things like:

  • adjusting your screen setting to avoid overstimulating your vision,

  • re-positioning your desk in the room, if possible, to avoid unnecessary distractions,

  • wearing ear plugs to avoid environmental overload,

  • taking frequent short breaks to allow your brain to pause and recharge

  • keeping a positive attitude

Always remember, if you push too hard and deplete your brain of energy, fatigue will set-in...sometimes for days or weeks. It really does pay to stick with routine, your fatigue management plan and to increase your activities gradually and slowly.

We all make mistakes, we have all pushed it too far. Well I sure have and more than once too (slow learner or too determined??). Finding the right work/family balance is a difficult thing to do following a brain event. Life is different, you need to keep this in mind and learn from the times where you have gone beyond your current limitations. These limitations do change over time and as frustrating as it may be, slow and steady will get you places quicker than hard and fast where brain injuries are concerned.

I hope you found this blog somewhat helpful. It is always much easier to put things on paper than into practice. Remember that it's also very much a game of trial an error but incorporating simple tips to your routine can sometimes make a huge difference. Be patient and be kind to yourself, it actually takes a lot of courage and strength to bounce back from a brain injury regardless of how it eventuated.

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