Purpose: This paper examines respondents' relationship with work following a stroke and explores their experiences including the perceived barriers to and facilitators of a return to employment.
Method: Our qualitative study explored the experiences and recovery of 43 individuals under 60 years who had survived a stroke. Participants, who had experienced a first stroke less than three months before and who could engage in in-depth interviews, were recruited through three stroke services in South East England. Each participant was invited to take part in four interviews over an 18-month period and to complete a diary for one week each month during this period.
Results: At the time of their stroke a minority of our sample (12, 28% of the original sample) were not actively involved in the labour market and did not return to the work during the period that they were involved in the study. Of the 31 participants working at the time of the stroke, 13 had not returned to work during the period that they were involved in the study, six returned to work after three months and nine returned in under three months and in some cases virtually immediately after their stroke. The participants in our study all valued work and felt that working, especially in paid employment, was more desirable than not working. The participants who were not working at the time of their stroke or who had not returned to work during the period of the study also endorsed these views. However they felt that there were a variety of barriers and practical problems that prevented them working and in some cases had adjusted to a life without paid employment. Participants' relationship with work was influenced by barriers and facilitators. The positive valuations of work were modified by the specific context of stroke, for some participants work was a cause of stress and therefore potentially risky, for others it was a way of demonstrating recovery from stroke. The value and meaning varied between participants and this variation was related to past experience and biography. Participants who wanted to work indicated that their ability to work was influenced by the nature and extent of their residual disabilities. A small group of participants had such severe residual disabilities that managing everyday life was a challenge and that working was not a realistic prospect unless their situation changed radically. The remaining participants all reported residual disabilities. The extent to which these disabilities formed a barrier to work depended on an additional range of factors that acted as either barriers or facilitator to return to work. A flexible working environment and supportive social networks were cited as facilitators of return to paid employment.
Conclusion: Participants in our study viewed return to work as an important indicator of recovery following a stroke. Individuals who had not returned to work felt that paid employment was desirable but they could not overcome the barriers. Individuals who returned to work recognized the barriers but had found ways of managing them.