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Returning to work after a spinal cord injury

Posted: 31/05/2022

In this series, we have covered the Motability Scheme, accommodation, spinal cord injury and mental health, and hydrotherapy. It has been illustrated at length just how far reaching the consequences of a spinal cord injury can be for an individual. In this article, we briefly cover returning to work.

Why is this important?

Financial stability
After sustaining a spinal cord injury, the initial focus is naturally on the stability of the injury and immediate rehabilitation. Physical recovery for spinal cord injured patients usually occurs within the first six months. This can be much longer. However, even six months is a long time to be out of work if you have no other means of income, or if you are the main or only breadwinner of the family.

Emotional security and general wellbeing
Alongside increased financial security, working is known to provide individuals with stability and routine. These all impact an individual’s general wellbeing.

Psychological wellbeing
Louise Taylor’s article explores in depth how spinal cord injury patients are at a significantly greater risk of developing psychological disorders and being detrimentally impacted socially.

However, for the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to say that there are numerous psychological studies showing that individuals often identify with their work and colleagues, reporting that they have ‘found their tribe’. Even those who don’t enjoy their particular role may still report deriving a sense of purpose in life, or in relation to their family, from work. Those out of work, meanwhile, will not benefit from the positive impact the working environment can provide, and being out of work can essentially undermine one’s self-worth.

Legal position on returning to pre-injury employment

When the level of support from nurses and carers is reduced, and a return to work has not yet been facilitated, an individual can be left feeling lost; they cannot simply pick up the life they had pre-injury - but how are they meant to navigate their new ‘normal’? It is unsurprising that these individuals often mourn their pre-incident life.

The starting position in law is that an employer should be expected to make, where possible, reasonable adjustments and adaptations if required by an employee. This can include anything from a flexible-working hours request through to an adapted system of working, ie dictating rather than typing. It can also include accessibility aids and equipment. Further, the employee should not be at a disadvantage because of their injury or disability.

One would hope that any employer would fulfil their obligation to ensure all reasonable adjustments and adaptations were in place, but this cannot always be assumed. If this is not the case, an individual should seek advice from an expert. Their local Citizen’s Advice Bureau or an employment lawyer may be able to assist.

Returning to work can have many benefits for an individual, including being surrounded by an already established network and the familiarity and security it provides, and should therefore be supported wherever suitable.

Vocational rehabilitation

For others, returning to pre-existing employment can simply exacerbate mourning of their pre-injury life. Being in a familiar environment but with physical limitations can serve as a constant reminder of what has been lost. It may be that the ‘reasonable adjustments’ are just not what that individual signed up for. Take, for example, a frontline police officer now feeling ‘buried’ behind a desk.

These are all natural feelings and, if returning to a pre-injury employment is not suitable for an individual, there is always the option of finding something else to do, with support if needed; getting back to work does not have to be a one-man job.

The purpose of vocational rehabilitation is to enable a return to previous work or any meaningful occupation. ‘Meaningful’ occupation is very subjective, and this can vary between individuals, ranging from a small business selling homemade items to complete retraining for a professional career.

Vocational rehabilitation covers every potential barrier in the process, including functional, cognitive, psychological, developmental, emotional and physical. It is carried out with a view to overcoming any such hurdles and securing access and maintaining a return to employment, or any other meaningful occupation.

Civil claims for compensation

The main principle in these types of claims is to put the individual back in the position they would have been but for the incident, as far as this can be achieved with the limited means available, ie rehabilitation, financial compensation etc. Any individual making a claim is also under a duty to mitigate their loss, both past and future.

At Penningtons Manches Cooper we promptly identify our client’s individual needs, including returning to work. This forms a crucial part of our consideration of their rehabilitation process. We often utilise the services of a case manager to coordinate practical assistance, which aids a smoother return to work, including prompt identification of the need for vocational rehabilitation. This allows the individual to mitigate their loss and, as well as benefitting from the other positives detailed above, feel in control again.

What if I don’t have a claim?

We offer a free initial consultation to individuals to find out if you have a valid civil claim.

If you do not have a civil claim, there are a number of registered UK charities and social enterprises that offer assistance, including SCOPE, Evenbreak, DisabilityJobsite and DisabilityRightsUK. There is also information on the GOV.UK website that may be helpful.


Other articles in this series


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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP