Supporting a brain injured employee during COVID-19

As we approach six months of COVID-19, businesses are under an intensifying spotlight to balance the pressures of surviving the economic disruption while also supporting their employees.

Now more than ever, employers must take adequate precautions to support staff in carrying out their roles safely.

However, not all employees’ needs are the same, and this is particularly relevant with brain injured employees whose difficulties may often be subtle. Below, I consider some of the practice considerations in supporting a brain injured employee back to work.

Identify difficulties and needs

To implement adequate measures, you first need to identify what issues affect your employee’s ability to fulfil their role. Brain injury symptoms are unique to every individual, so this must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

It’s also important to remember that, just like with other staff, your employee’s difficulties and needs may have changed since the pandemic. It’s sensible to risk assess this as if they were a new employee.

Your employee may be exempt from wearing a mask or have concerns about maintaining social distancing in the workplace. Ask them about their concerns and what would help. If you need further input, an occupational therapy assessment is ideal.

Consider the suitability of their role

You’ll need to consider your employee’s current role is still suitable for them. For example, they may be deemed a vulnerable person who needs to shield and this may make it impossible for them to carry out their duties whilst working from home.

Where adjustments aren’t possible or helpful, employers must consider whether alternative roles exist for employees who cannot continue in their previous position.

Adapt and adjust

Businesses must consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to allow an employee to carry out their tasks independently. This may include:

  • Establishing routine and a suitable place to work – your employee may feel anxious about returning, which can often lead to irritability, fatigue and sensory overload. Creating routine, such as a quiet area to work or rest or designated seating, could provide stability and reassurance.
  • Providing training for the changes made and what is expected of them. This is especially relevant if your employee has different measures to the rest of your workforce. A direct approach is often favoured by brain injury survivors, who may struggle to ‘read between the lines’. It’s important not to assume knowledge and to follow-up to check both understanding and compliance.
  • Providing equipment or aids – for example, a larger monitor, a single-handed keyboard, a Dictaphone or visual aids to assist with social distancing

Working with colleagues

It’s common for a brain injury to affect personality, tolerance and social interactions. These may have changed further because of the COVID-19, where lockdown and social distancing have caused an increase in feelings of depression, isolation and anxiety. It’s easy to concentrate your employee’s individual needs, and overlook the impact that their relationships with colleagues may have.

Either one-on-one, or with the help of an occupational therapist, establish any changes that may affect your employee’s ability to work and their relationships with others. They may benefit from being allowed to work in a quiet room, or alternatively, may prefer the reassurance and company of having someone checking in with them.

Colleagues may need to be made aware and have training on new working measures with your employee, to prevent inaccurate assumptions being made which could which upset or trigger your employee. Of course, it’s imperative that the employee’s privacy is properly protected, and ideally they make clear what information they feel comfortable sharing with colleagues.

Ipek Tugcu is senior associate at Bolt Burdon Kemp

Further reading on adapting the workplace in light of COVID-19:

HR responds to COVID-19: software firm Personio

COVID-19: The critical questions that all HR departments must ask

Test, track and trace in the workplace

HR responds to COVID-19: The London Stock Exchange Group