Intensive care: Patients' experiences

Impact on work

Critical illness can have a huge impact on a person's life, and physical and emotional recovery can take a long time. Many people return home from hospital extremely weak and it can take several months before they feel strong enough to do normal daily activities. During this time, if they'd been employed before they went into hospital, they will be unable to work until they are better. 

Most people who've had a critical illness and spent some time in ICU find it takes them longer than they expect to recover and gain enough strength and confidence to return to work. Some of them will need rehabilitation before they can return to work. Others who have been in intensive care after surgery and other kinds of elective treatment may be well enough to return to work after 4-6 months. Here people talk about the impact of their illness or injuries on work.

The people we talked to explained how important work was to them for many reasons - not only financial. One man said he needed to work to get 'some normality' back into his life after a year of 'hospitals and doctors'. A woman said that, even though work made her feel anxious, it also spurred her on and gave her something to aim for.

Planned admissions to ICU
People who are admitted to the intensive care unit after planned surgery can usually prepare themselves and arrange to take time off work, though recovery time can vary from a few months to a year and depends on such things as age, previous health and how ill they'd been. Some people said that they got back to work gradually, at the start working a few hours per day and building up to the number of hours they'd done before their illness. A few had returned to full-time work after six months but needed to take a few hours off each week for physiotherapy. For most, going back to work was a sign that they were 'back to normal' and many said that colleagues had been supportive and understanding.

Emergency admissions to ICU
People who were admitted to ICU because of an emergency usually spent longer in hospital than those who'd been admitted after planned surgery, were usually weaker and needed considerably more time to recover. For many people going back to work was an important step - some dreaded the prospect but others knew they needed to return. Several people described how surprised they were to find themselves still too tired physically and drained emotionally to cope with their old working environment. The pace of work made many people anxious about going back.

Some people who were about to return to work had mixed feelings. They wanted to be strong enough to return to work and their routine but were fearful and anxious that they might not be able to cope. A woman with a young daughter said she discussed her concerns about returning to work with her GP. Another described how she now found her old job too physically demanding for her.

Some people were discharged from hospital but needed to have surgery at a later date. They had given up work and planned to return when they were well enough to work without needing long periods of sick leave.

Many said they found phasing their return to work had worked well. They'd started with working a few hours a day and built up to full-time. One woman said that being critically ill made her realise that she was getting older and she had to try harder to keep up with her younger colleagues. One man said that he did light manual work when he first went back to work until he was strong enough to do more physically. He said he returned to work before the doctor advised him to because he felt bored at home.

Many people described how colleagues supported them while they'd been ill. One man said his partner received phone calls from colleagues every day while he was in ICU, offering best wishes and support. Others said they'd received cards and letters. People particularly valued colleagues and bosses who understood how ill they'd been and appreciated that there would be times when they tried their best at work despite not feeling 'a hundred percent'.

Some bosses were fantastic and very understanding. Other people found that bosses had been supportive at first but became a bit less patient as time went on. Several noted that work colleagues in general were completely unprepared for how long it would take them to recover.

Some people talked about the longer-term effects their illness had had on their personality and daily life (see 'Attitudes to life during and after recovery'). Several said they were now more assertive at work, others said they were calmer and more 'laid back'. Others were looking for new jobs or a change in career, some wanting 'to give something back', having re-evaluated their lives and priorities. One man said he used to push himself too much at work but felt he now knew when it was time to take a break. One woman was admitted to the ICU in which she was a nurse. Once she was well enough to return to work, she and her colleagues decided to make changes to the way they ran the unit. Many people also said they were extremely grateful to relatives who'd taken time off work while they'd been ill (see 'Impact on family').

Last reviewed May 2015.

Last updated November 2012.

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