An innovative Stroke Association of Victoria program is proving that for the 30% of stroke survivors who are of working age, returning to employment is possible.
The Stroke Association of Victoria is a non-profit provider of community-based peer support for stroke survivors and carers. The AMP Foundation funds the association’s Stay At Work Initiative (SAWI) - an innovative pilot that aims to keep working-aged stroke survivors in the Geelong region employed.
To mark National Stroke Week, which runs from September 2 to 9, the initiative’s Engagement Coordinator, Chris Balaam (pictured above with SAWI participant, Gary), shares how it is possible to resume employment after a stroke. It’s something she knows from personal experience.
“I have been overwhelmed by how supportive, flexible and understanding the employers have been."
In March 2009, her partner Graeme experienced a stroke at age 55. Three weeks after the event, Chris was told that while he would be “okay to mow lawns for the rest of his life”, a return to work was not discussed.
“It was a hard journey. I had no idea what was involved and felt very isolated,” she recalls.
“Fortunately, I had a friend who was an occupational therapist who helped us. We continually set goals, including working on Graeme’s physical, emotional, creative and mental health and wellbeing, and this led to him resuming work as an engineer.
Chris now draws on her experience to support working-age stroke patients and their carers through SAWI, which is run from the Barwon Stroke Centre in collaboration with Deakin University and Barwon Health.
“SAWI is about having someone to guide you, spur you on and set small goals – the stepping stones that will put you back on the pathway to work. It’s about providing reassurance and confidence building... and having someone to go to when you reach a point of despair.”
A Barwon Health officer refers patients who were working at the time of their stroke. After an assessment to determine their barriers to work, including mental health and fatigue, SAWI provides participants with tailored support such as vocational guidance and access to resources and technology that can help their recovery.
All the while, the SAWI team remains in contact with employers – in many cases, private enterprises that are keen to support loyal employees.
“I have been overwhelmed by how supportive, flexible and understanding the employers have been,” Chris says.
“A lot of the employees we work with have been extremely loyal, staying with a business for 15 years. Because the employers see the value in them, they have been remarkably welcoming, embracing the return-to-work principles with great enthusiasm.”
The program is getting positive results. A study by Deakin University, the Impact Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment, Barwon Health and the Stroke Association of Victoria found that six months after being engaged with SAWI, 30% of participants were working full-time again, while 35% were in part-time employment.
On a participant’s returns to work, SAWI provides ongoing support, advocacy and follow-up assessments for up to 12 months. For stroke survivors who are unable to return to their pre-stroke job, the SAWI team provides additional support to identify alternative employment or volunteering opportunities to keep them engaged with the community and increase skills.
For more information about the Stroke Association of Victoria’s work, visit their Facebook page.
National Stroke Week runs from September 2 to 9. https://strokefoundation.org.au/How-you-can-help/Stroke-week