Tools and coaching come together for return-to-work success

Imagine for a moment that you’re in pain — a lot of pain. No matter how you sit or position yourself, you seem to still be hurting. You spent months on bed rest and now use a wheelchair to get around, but even though it’s progress, the progress is slow. It’s not just the physical pain that’s an issue — your disability has caused you to be emotionally drained, as well.

This is the reality for an employee I’ve worked with periodically for more than a year. A teacher who had suffered a severe hernia, the seriousness of her disability made it difficult for her to return to work at full capacity. In addition, she had a hard time accepting these new limitations, and as a result, started to feel depressed and discouraged.

In certain circumstances, a request for a physical accommodation also can lead to a mental health accommodation. Here is how I managed these two needs for this teacher:

Find ergonomic solutions
To decrease her pain and increase the days she can work, I worked with the school to facilitate the following accommodations:

  • Reclined seating: The school purchased a reclining chair that allowed her to eliminate her back pain for limited amounts of time, therefore relieving stress on her back.
  • Pillows: When sitting in her chair for too long became uncomfortable, certain pillows helped alleviate some of that pain.
  • Height adjustable desk: Having a table at the correct height allowed her to complete her work while in her chair.
  • Slant board: If she needed to be reclined, it would have been difficult for her to access her paperwork without leaning forward in a painful way; a slant board helped her work without sitting in an uncomfortable position.

Additionally, in-person visits allowed me to observe her working in her environment and identify moments when she needed to be more aware of her positioning. By pointing out these instances, I helped her become more aware of her body and her workspace to lessen her pain.

Provide coaching and support
For our ergonomic solutions to be truly effective, consider the following ways I am helping to emotionally support this employee:

  • To eliminate setbacks, I am coaching her on how to use the accommodations and tools that have been provided to her.
  • To help her keep a positive attitude and minimize depression, I have reminded her about how far she has progressed. She spent the summer on bed rest, so making it through an entire semester is a big accomplishment.
  • I maintain her expectations by reminding her that she needs to give herself some time to adjust and not to push herself too hard. Right now, she hasn’t quite been able to work a full five-day week, but I’m staying involved and visiting to help her hopefully get her to that point.

Without the reassurances and coaching, I don’t think the physical accommodations would have been enough to help this particular individual stay at work. Keep an open mind, and understand that workplace accommodations often involve much more than just equipment.

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