By Shana Palmieri, May 16, 2018

With 8 million adults experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a given year, 7-8% of adults have PTSD at some point in their lifetime, and rates as high as 20% in a given year for veterans, chances are you have employees with PTSD – or at a minimum, employees who are suffering from symptoms of PTSD.

First, what is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder which changes the body’s reaction to stress, affecting stress hormones and specific parts of the brain.  PTSD can develop in individuals that have experienced a life-threatening event (such as combat), a natural disaster, sexual assault, a car accident, or even witnessing a life-threatening event.

It is important to note that not all individuals who experience a life-threatening event will develop PTSD.  In fact, 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic experience in their lifetime; that is 223.4 million of us!  Of that 70%, only 20% will go on to develop PTSD, or approximately 44.7 million people in the U.S.  At any given time, around 8% of people in the U.S. have PTSD. That translates to 24.4 million people, roughly the population of Texas.

Individuals that develop PTSD as a result of experiencing life-threating events develop specific symptoms, to include the following:

  • Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress to traumatic reminders, physical reactivity to traumatic reminders
  • Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli
  • Exaggerated self-blame, social isolation, difficulty connecting with others
  • Irritability, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance

What does PTSD in the Workplace Look Like?

PTSD is much more than an individual reacting to loud noises that sound like gun shots or bombs going off.  The interactions that trigger PTSD symptoms can be subtle and difficult to understand for individuals who have not had the experience themselves. It could be something as simple as someone putting their hand on a colleague’s shoulder.  What may be a non-threating gesture to one person, may trigger a strong emotional and physical reaction in another individual as a result of past experiences.  A supervisor that has a “strong tone” may come across aggressive or trigger an employee with a history of verbal and physical abuse.

It is important for supervisors, managers and human resources staff to listen and openly communicate with employees to ensure a work environment that creates a place where the employee feels safe and has the opportunity to be successful in their position.  

Is PTSD Real?

There is an unfortunate common misperception that PTSD is not a real disorder.  Research has demonstrated both through changes in the brain and changes in stress hormones that in fact, people with the diagnosis of PTSD have significant brain and hormone changes compared with individuals that do not have PTSD.  These changes are directly related to the symptoms individuals with PTSD experience. So yes, PTSD is very real and so are the symptoms individuals are experiencing as a result. An individual with PTSD has a disability and is legally entitled to the reasonable accommodation process.

How can Employers Create Opportunities for Success for Employees with PTSD?  

  • Ensure all supervisors, managers and human resources staff are educated on the symptoms of PTSD and the potential impact on the workplace.
  • Learn to recognize the warning signs that an employee is struggling and provide support and guidance to help them access treatment options.
  • Encourage and support employees in accessing EAP and appropriate mental health services.
  • Implement programs through HR or EAP that promote mental wellness and stress reduction.
  • Engage in the interactive process to determine what workplace accommodations need to be made for an individual with PTSD.

For more on this, attend FELTG’s seminar Federal Workplace Challenges: Behavioral Health Conditions, Threats of Violence, and Coworker Conflicts July 17-19 in Washington, DC.

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