Disability awareness: what to do if your employee suffers brain damage

Remaining in work can be an important part of someone’s healing process. How can employers make workplaces more welcoming to those who are living with neurological damage? Annie Fielder explains…

“Due to the large impact of the fall we have had to operate to stem the bleeding on his brain. We do not know the effect as yet or whether he will wake up from the operation – and if he does wake up – it’s highly likely he will never be the same again.”

I will never forget that moment. The tiny waiting room with its dull posters on brown walls. My mother’s swollen eyes focusing on the consultant, whose face now to me is just an amalgamation of all the doctors we saw over the years after that. My sisters with their hands held up close to their chests and the overwhelming feeling that I was in a film set; that it was just not real. When my step-father fell down the stairs in 2008, it changed everything in our world completely and forever. He did wake up, and he was never the same again. We were never the same again.

Neurological damage be it from impact or disease is just utterly and completely heart-breaking. It is also humbling, exhausting and even hilarious. It becomes who you are, what you are known for, why people stop talking to you, and why people give you hugs in the street. It also gives you a new clear direction on who you want to be.

Remaining in work can be an important part of someone’s healing process. So what can employers do to make workplaces more welcoming to those who are living with neurological damage?

  • Listen: You could stop at this one, skip the rest of my list, and be set. So simple, isn’t it? The thing is though, many people claim to listen but don’t really actually listen. By listening it means not waiting for a gap in their breath to give your opinion. It means not making a noise whilst they speak; the continual “uhuh” or “yep” only shows that you want them to finish. Just listen to what they are saying. Some people will struggle to say how they feel but if you really listen you can hear what is really going on.
  • Be flexible: If it is possible for the individual to work from home then give them that option. If they need to travel outside of rush hour, then allow them to do so. Staying in work will help them retain a piece of themselves, will support their mental health and help them in their recovery.
  • Only promise what you can do: When a life-altering “life bus” knocks one for six, the initial reaction is to want to offer help. The brain is an awesome and delicate piece of kit. If you think a leg takes six months to heal, what kind of time will the brain need? Recovery takes more time than you would ever think; requiring the patience of a saint and the stamina of a toddler who’s just learned to walk. If the only promise you can keep is to make a cup of tea, then just do that. Don’t promise to make changes to their job or hold their jobs open indefinitely unless you can actually do that.
  • Talk about it: Dancing around the subject only makes people feel awkward. You know that feeling when you get home at the end of the day and realise there is a large dollop of jam/ Marmite (circle preferred option) on your cheek but that not one person has mentioned it? Multiply that feeling by about 672348 – give or take – and that is how the person who is living with neurological damage will be feeling.
  • Learn: Neurological damage can be weird when the person you know looks the same but acts ‘differently’ – there is no shame in being freaked out by this. But sit tight as it can also be funny and eye opening. You won’t really get what has happened so ask, look it up, do your research. Train your staff so they understand also. Get educated, get cake and don’t be afraid to make them laugh. It will make all the difference.

Annie Fielder is co-founder and managing director of Whiffle Pig, a company that supports families living with life-changing long-term and terminal illness.  www.whifflepig.com