PTSD in the Workplace

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June 27th was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day and people worldwide raised their voices together to bring attention to this condition. To help raise awareness we decided to discuss PTSD and ways to help people with this disorder succeed in the workplace.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD Awareness Day is largely driven by veterans in the United States who have suffered traumatic experiences in combat, but there are many people who suffer from PTSD who aren't in the military. In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder that one in ten people will experience in their lifetimes. Specifically, they define PTSD as:

" anxiety disorder characterized by reliving a psychologically traumatic situation, long after any physical danger involved has passed, through flashbacks and nightmares."

Psychological trauma may be experienced by soldiers during combat, but other events such as physical and sexual assaults, vehicle or work accidents and natural disasters also may cause people to suffer from PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD are not limited to those who directly experience a traumatic event, they can also be developed by those who witness the event or learn that a family member or friend is in danger.

Beyond anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares, people suffering from PTSD often develop co-morbid conditions such as depression, alcohol and drug addiction, dizziness and immune system problems.

PTSD is generally treated with therapy, while medication may be used to help alleviate symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

PTSD in the Workplace

Employment enables people with disabilities to fully participate in society, generate income, experience success and build self-esteem. All of which are critical elements of psychological health. Indeed, people who regain employment after the onset of a disability often report higher life satisfaction than those who are not working. Finding, and maintaining, work can often reduce the symptoms and isolation commonly experienced by people with PTSD.

For people who have a job, PTSD may lead to impaired functioning at work and problems such as absenteeism, work disability and unemployment. Generally speaking, problems in the workplace associated with PTSD appear to be very similar to the impairments experienced by people with major depression. People experiencing PTSD may have trouble maintaining concentration, poor sleep patterns, memory deficits and other challenges. However, treatment for PTSD and accommodations in the workplace can can dramatically improve their quality of life and productivity at work. 

A variety of accommodations and practices can help people with PTSD succeed in the workplace. These include:

  • Allow for scheduled rest breaks to prevent stimulus overload and fatigue.
  • Wall calendars, checklists, written instructions, printed minutes.
  • Reminders of important deadlines via email and memos. 
  • Flexible work schedules and/or job sharing with another employee.
  • White noise or environmental sound machines (to help eliminate distractions).
  • Mentoring by a co-worker or retired worker.
  • Providing encouragement, moral support, and a listening ear.
  • Understanding that PTSD and symptoms of any psychological condition may ebb and flow, and that the person may experience good days and more challenging days.
  • Support for pursuing treatment and assistance, even during work hours. Employers should know that treatment is a process that can be effective in managing psychological symptoms and conditions. Supporting employees in their need to regularly follow up or comply with treatment recommendations is an important part of their recovery.
Building a workplace where people with disabilities can succeed requires flexibility and open communication. Not every person experiences their disability in the same way. One person with PTSD may struggle with having their back to the opening of their office or cubicle. Another may have their symptoms intensified by hearing sirens outside on the street. Simple accommodations like changing the layout of an office or moving to a different side of the building can go a long way in helping to manage job stress. Being open, honest and willing to communicate and search for solutions at work is the first step to creating a workplace where everyone can succeed. 


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