Epilepsy is a common medical condition that affects the brain; it causes people to have seizures, which are bursts of electrical activity in the brain, affecting bodily function. It is usually a life-long condition, but it can improve vastly over time, with some people finding they get to a point where they no longer have seizures.
1 in 50 people in the UK will have epilepsy at some point in their life, with 87 people being diagnosed every day. It is most common for epilepsy to start in childhood, or individuals over 60, but this is not always the case. The cause of epilepsy is unclear. However, there are strong genetic links; 1 in 3 people with epilepsy also have a family member with it. Epilepsy can also be caused by brain damage, for example, a stroke, head injury or tumour.
Many people manage to control epilepsy by avoiding triggers for seizures and taking medication, leaving them to live a normal and safe life easily. For worse cases of epilepsy, it’s possible to have more severe treatment such as brain surgery or to go on a specialist diet called the ketogenic diet.
The bursts of electrical activity that happen in the brain can cause people to have fits. The following symptoms categorise a fit:
- Uncontrollable jerking and shaking
- Losing awareness
- Becoming stuff
- Strange sensations in arms, legs and stomach
- Memory loss
Seizures typically pass within a few minutes but can be dangerous if they happen in an unsafe environment. Triggers in the body or environment often cause seizures. People with epilepsy have many different triggers, but the main ones include stress, tiredness, alcohol, drugs, menstruation, waking up and flashing lights.
Managing epilepsy at work
If you are able to manage your epilepsy, there is no reason why you can’t be successful in your chosen career. All jobs and careers are available to you, and your employer must work to make any adjustments for your epilepsy. However, suppose you do have regular seizures. In that case, you should consider what working environments would be dangerous for you to have a seizure in. For example, it would put yourself and others at risk if you had a seizure in a working kitchen or a car.
Many people with epilepsy will not need any ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made for them at work. But, it is still important that you tell your employer about your epilepsy and inform them of what they need to do if you have a seizure. This will ensure you are safe and supported at work. It can be beneficial to keep track of your seizure triggers at work, especially as you enter a new environment, as you can begin to highlight what you need to avoid to remain safe in the workplace.
If you are employed but have to take time off because of your epilepsy, you are entitled to statutory sick pay. Your employer should support you while you get well enough to return to work. If you are currently unemployed, and can’t work because of your epilepsy, then you can be financially supported by an employment and support allowance.
Supporting staff with epilepsy
As an employer of somebody with epilepsy, it is your job to make sure that they are comfortable and safe at work. There are many small adjustments that you can make and be aware of to support your staff.
Firstly, you must know what to do if a staff member has a seizure in the office. Seizures can vary from person to person, so speak to your employee directly to find out what type of seizures they have and how to help them.
The most important things to remember are:
- Do not move them unless they are in an unsafe environment such as a road
- Support their head with a cushion
- Loosen tight clothing to assist their breathing
- When convulsions stop, turn them onto their side
For information on when to call an ambulance, see the NHS website.
Here are some adjustments you can make in the workplace to support staff with epilepsy:
- Allow time off for regular GP and hospital appointments
- Plan breaks around their medication and create a private space for them to take their medication
- Seizures can be linked to a woman’s menstrual cycle so she may need more time off/ flexible working at certain stages in the month
- Changing working hours if necessary
Check appliances regularly, so there is no risk of flashing/flickering lights.