Life after stroke: Going back to work

Usually when hearing the word “stroke”, one thinks of an elderly person. However, turns out that around 25% of all stroke cases are among people who are working age, and who have to stop working against their will. As we discussed in previous articles, stroke after effects are both physical and cognitive. Those include memory loss, short attention spam, difficulties processing new information, as well as speech and language function. Physically stroke affects balance, coordination, causes muscle weakness and physical pain. Emotionally a stroke can cause depression and changes in personality. These and more after effects affect how and whether a person will be able to return back to work. Nevertheless, returning back to work after a stroke is often possible.

Can a stroke survivor really work?

Almost half of the working age stroke survivors (till the age of 65) return back to work either full-time or part-time. Despite that, there are still prejudices in society about stroke survivors and their abilities. Dr. Mitchell Elkind, professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and chair of the American Stroke Association Advisory Committee claims that “Most people, when they think of stroke, they think of a person who’s paralyzed and can’t walk or speak, is lying in bed and can’t take care of themselves. Certainly, there are strokes that do that. But there are a lot of strokes that don’t do that.” He also stresses that employers and the society need to learn that just because someone experienced a stroke doesn’t mean they can’t return back to work and perform their work responsibilities. “It all depends on how serious the stroke was, how severe it was and the nature of the deficits. It’s really a very individualized kind of phenomenon,” says Dr. Mitchell Elkind.

After receiving rehabilitation, a stroke survivor indeed may be able to return to work but is often accompanied by doubts and uncertainty. Questions such as “Will I be physically capable to do my job? Will I lose the state benefits/allowance from my country? Do I need to discuss anything in particular with my employer before I can return back to work?”

First of all, it is a question of safety – such that the stroke survivor doesn’t endanger themselves and others. Even though each stroke case is unique, it is most likely that a prolonged amount of time will be needed (6-8 months) before you can return back to work. Even if the stroke was relatively mild many most working age people experience, it is still important to receive treatment and properly evaluate your health condition together with your doctor. Your occupational therapist can help you with that, as well as with setting up realistic goals during your stroke recovery timely.

Employers should know..

Stroke researchers claim that both employers and doctors need to educate themselves more about the issues and limitations a stroke survivor faces when returning back to work. Because many of these issues are not immediately obvious (inability to focus, fatigue, etc), employers, general practitioners as well as stroke survivors themselves often overlook them. Yet they affect productivity and ability to work profoundly, and without understanding them, it will be hard to evaluate whether a stroke survivor is able to work.

With some adjustments both from the employer and the stroke survivor employee, returning back to work can be even very successful. Vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Robert Trierweiler helps by evaluating the stroke survivors’ abilities to return back to work. He talks about a stroke survivor who worked at an export company. This employee had balance problems and had difficulties to climb ladders. However the employer allowed him to work on the ground floor with the ground crew with the condition that he will not have to climb stairs. Another employee, he claims, understood that work in the office is too challenging for him and applied for disability status.

How and why should an employer help?

It is important to properly evaluate your abilities and try working if you believe you are able to. Most employers nowadays are forthcoming and try to accommodate employees with disability to the best of their ability. If you aren’t sure whether you are ready to go back to work, it might be a good idea to visit the work place before you return to work. Another option is to agree on a trial period with your employer or start part-time and return to work gradually. This will help both you and your employer to minimize the anticipation about whether you should come back to work or not.

An employer can even benefit if a stroke survivor returns back to work. An employee who has previously done the job will know the job responsibilities well, as well as the work environment and people. This allows for a more successful work than if a new employee who needs to be trained were to join. Therefore, it is both in the stroke survivor’s and employer’s interests that he or she can return to work as soon as possible and not lose their position. In order to do that, receiving a timely help and rehabilitation is crucial. To learn more about the different options for rehabilitation, read in our article “What are the options for stroke rehabilitation?“. It is also recommended that the employer keeps in touch with their stroke survivor employee and shows support – this will give the stroke survivor a greater motivation to recover and to return back to a normal life.

Employer can help their employee who has physical functional limitations by offering some modifications. If a stroke survivor employee would like to request particular modifications for their workspace due to medical reasons, they might need a doctor’s note. Such modifications can be:

  • Special tools as extensions to help reach necessary objects
  • Non-slip gloves for a better grip
  • Keyboard that is adjusted for writing with one hand
  • Speech recognition program
  • Work station that can be regulated (with the option to work while sitting and standing)

What can you do if you are not able to perform your previous job?

As mentioned in the article, there was a case when a stroke survivor returned to work and realized it is too difficult for them. What to do then? If you survived a stroke, you might have cognitive disabilities such as fatigue, significant memory loss, difficulties concentrating, Then you might not be able to return to do your job even if you are physically capable. If it is possible, you might try to work less hours first, work from home or if possible, return to work gradually.

According to a stroke survivor with the name of Paul E. Berger, who went on to become an entrepreneur, the most important traits when seeking for work is “creativity, good attitude and hard work”. You may want to list your skills and qualifications from your previous jobs, and find that they translate in other possible careers. For example, if you were once a teacher and cannot return to the classroom, you might want to start writing textbooks or become an editor in the subject of your knowledge.

There are many people who return back to work after a stroke – you might want to reach out to them through stroke groups and forums. There are organizations that help stroke survivors find jobs and even employers who have had personal experiences with stroke and who are accommodating with hiring stroke survivors. By reaching out to these different channels, you might even find yourself starting out a new career.

If you worry that an employer might not want to hire you, look into the rights and policies for hiring with disability in your country. For example,  under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers can’t fire or refuse to hire people with disabilities and must do their best to accommodate for employees’ disability-related needs. To learn more about disability discrimination policies in the US, read in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.

Depending on your country, you may qualify for certain social benefits, tax relief or other relief programs. To learn more about social benefits and disability benefits for stroke, read in our article “What support is available for stroke survivors with disability?“.

Returning back to work after a stroke – a personal decision

Every stroke survivor case is unique, and so is the time they will be able to return back to work. It also depends on how severe the stroke was, what are the side effects and after effects. It is necessary to receive treatment and rehabilitation in a timely manner as well as set goals to achieve better recovery. One of the main goals if the stroke survivor is younger than 65 might be returning to work. Stroke survivors and their families often undergo financial difficulties and even debt – rehabilitation and treatment often turns out to be expensive. As a more accessible and cheaper rehabilitation method, you might want to try digital therapy for stroke VIGO.

It is both in the family’s and stroke survivor’s interests for them to return to work, provided the health condition is stable enough. And even if you might need to do a career change, getting back in the workforce with minimal downtime might be a good decision. A job gives a sense of independence, confidence and motivation which are all extremely important for a stroke survivor. Working strengthens the bond with their local community and society, and expands one’s social circle. Employers shouldn’t be scared – just because a person experienced a stroke once doesn’t mean it will happen again. To learn more about stroke prevention and how to prevent another stroke from happening, read in our articles “What can help prevent a stroke?” and “Preventing another stroke“.

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