Despite being able to return to work after a stroke, stroke survivors still experience difficulties in keeping their jobs. There is a need to improve the awareness of, in particular, invisible stroke-related impairments. Only by understanding the characteristics of stroke survivors, can employers help to fit them into the workplace.
My name is Wang Zunsheng and I decided to work after my recovery from a stroke. After eight months of job searching, I found a job and went back to work feeling positive but anxious. This is an account of my journey of re-integrating to the workplace.
Why am I trying to find work?
Having no special benefits, no pension, and do not have enough money to support my daily expenses, I have no choice but to work. This is a common reason for most stroke survivors to return to work. My doctor and occupational therapist (OT) also suggested that I find work because of two main reasons: one, that it would help me regain my independence, and two, that the stimulation and social aspects of work can also help with my recovery.
How was it like trying to go back to work?
During my recovery, I kept in touch with my employer and communicated with them about my needs and limitations. They also spoke with my doctors to learn more about how they could accommodate me on the job site. After communicating with my employer, I realized that I was not able to return to my previous job as a researcher with the same responsibilities because of the effects of the stroke.
Hence, I had to look for a job that would be more suitable for me. Before I returned to work, I talked to my occupational therapist (OT) about my progress as well as realistic goals that I could set. My OT also referred me to a vocational rehabilitation team that helped prepare me for my return to work.
My job search
Due to my physical limitations, looking for a job and being accepted is not easy. After several unsuccessful applications, I got a chance to work in the service industry (a restaurant) to test my physical situation; whether I was suitable for it, as some stroke survivors also managed to work in this industry. But after one month, my physical situation was not acceptable to the employer. For example, compared to the other disabled staff like those who are hard of hearing, my disability was very noticeable. I was very disappointed, but I understood because sometimes the kitchen floor can be very slippery, and I could easily fall and get seriously injured. So, after talking with my OT and coach from the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), they advised me to give up looking for a job in the food industry and look elsewhere instead.
Getting support from SPD
I researched on the Internet to find information on SG Enable and SPD, organisations which help the disabled get jobs. I submitted my application through SG Enable, and they referred me to SPD who gave me an interview to assess my suitability for job positions. They evaluated my needs and arranged for a coach to help match me to suitable jobs.
After five months, my SPD coach recommended a job to me: data analysis (data visualisation) in a logistics company. I quite like this job, but the pace of work is very fast, as most projects need to be finished within a week. The pace of work caused me to be very stressed, and I had trouble sleeping at night as I kept thinking about work. After half a year there, the department was restructured, and I was let go. I informed my Coach who suggested an administrative position in an international school. I liked this job as I could cope with the pace of work there. However, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in poor student enrollment in the school, and I lost the job again after two and a half years.
Barriers to staying at work after a stroke
‘Invisible’ impairments like fatigue impacted my work and caused some misunderstandings between me and my employer. I was always feeling sleepy and could not concentrate on work. I was not the only one, others also had the same problem. Based on studies conducted, if stroke-related impairments such as fatigue, problems with concentration, memory, and personality changes were more visible, it was usually easier for other people as well as the patients themselves to understand their difficulties.
Skill barriers – my previous work experience and skills were not relevant to my new jobs. Therefore, I had to upskill myself. I used my weekends to learn new skills online to expand my knowledge. For example, because I had never done a data analysis (data visualisation) job before, I had to spend one week online to acquire the basic skills needed for the job. This was quite stressful for me.
Barriers like stress – can lead to bodily dysfunctions. For example, because of stress, I experienced a strange feeling in my arms and legs that sometimes made me unable to walk.
Strategies to cope with challenges at work
If people can cope with their impairments, this sometimes leads to a more positive experience at work. Once they have accepted their changed abilities, and ‘listened to their body’, paced their work, or are ‘patient with themselves’, it becomes easier to deal with the challenges. These are some of the strategies I have used to overcome my challenges.
Dealing with fatigue I cope with fatigue through various ways, like taking a nap or going to bed early; exercising; planning in advance and in detail on a problem, and concentrating when moving the weak side of my body at work.
Dealing with my specific problems such as getting ready in the morning I get my clothes ready the night before and get up earlier in the morning, as I know that my movements are slower after my stroke and I take more time to get ready for work.
Dealing with stress: I cope with stress by telling myself to slow down, to take it easy, not overdoing things, and to be kind to myself, etc.
Communication with my employer: I share my difficulties with my employers for them to better understand my situation. For example, when my boss found me asleep during work, he called me to his office and I explained to him the situation. He was understanding and arranged for my work to be given to me earlier so that I could produce work of quality.
Social support in Singapore for the disabled to return to work
In Singapore, stroke survivors can attempt to regain employment through the enlistment of private employment agencies to aid in job-searching and job matching.
Stroke survivors can get help from community-based services from healthcare or through their efforts. As I mentioned earlier about my own experience regarding SG Enable and SPD, here is more information about them: SG Enable, an agency set up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, is one of the primary organisations that handle requests for job support. SG Enable refers people with residual physical or intellectual disabilities resulting from stroke to various Voluntary Welfare Organisations, including SPD, for job placement and job support initiatives.
Upon receiving a referral, SPD performs an initial client assessment to determine suitability for various job positions. This includes an evaluation of the client’s need for assistive technology, vocational rehabilitation, training courses, or job-hardening programmes to improve an individual’s potential for employment.
How can I fit into the workplace better?
One way that we can better fit into the workplace is to possess characteristics that are desirable to employers. These include having a good work ethic, a positive outlook, being hard-working and responsible. Moreover, to do well at the job, the person has to like their job, fit in well with the team, is easy to work with, is enthusiastic, and has a good relationship with their manager.
Another way is through support from others, and these can come in the form of formal adjustments at work, or making them feel understood. Employers who better understand stroke-related problems are usually more supportive as they understand the challenges that these individuals face, and they can help to meet the needs of the individuals to help them fit into the workplace better.
Working together to make work better for all
Stroke survivors should be accepting of change and not give up. They should upskill themselves and seek assistance to look for suitable jobs. On the other hand, employers should make the effort to understand the needs of stroke survivors and where possible, help them to fit into their job roles and ultimately, be a contributing member to society at large.
Special thanks to Wang Zunsheng from Make The Change for this article.