June marks an important event in the veteran community: PTSD Awareness Month. We explore the most common PTSD symptoms and how employers can provide PTSD support to employees in the workplace.
According to the National Center for PTSD, an estimated 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD Awareness Month aims to raise awareness about the condition and to encourage dialogue about PTSD symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments.
PTSD can be an extremely challenging condition to manage and can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing. As such, PTSD can affect everyday tasks in their daily lives, including their job performance. As an employer, you have a responsibility to support your employees and help them cope with the symptoms of PTSD so that they can succeed in their careers. By providing support, understanding, and the necessary accommodations, employers can create a safe and inclusive work environment that allows individuals with PTSD to thrive.
Read our guide to help you understand more about the symptoms of PTSD and what you can do as an employer to help your employees.
What’s in this article?
- What is PTSD?
- What causes PTSD?
- Who can get PTSD?
- Common PTSD symptoms
- The impact of PTSD at work
- 5 ways employers can support employees with PTSD
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that individuals develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Although symptoms from PTSD look different for everyone, nightmares, anxiety and recurring distressing memories are common.
There have been multiple references to different forms of PTSD both in literature as well as common history. After World War I, ‘shell-shocked’ became a common term to describe what is now understood to be PTSD. In the decades that followed, various research on rape and Holocaust and other trauma victims proved that different types of traumas can cause PTSD.
In 1974, ‘Rape Trauma Syndrome’ was defined by psychologist Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom as a variant of PTSD. It was in 1980 that PTSD was formally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM).
The first National PTSD Awareness Day was marked on June 27, 2010 by the Senate. This was spearheaded by Senator Kent Conrad to honor a North Dakota National Guard member who had committed suicide after two tours of duty in Iraq. In 2014, the Senate designated the whole of June as National PTSD Awareness Month.
What causes PTSD?
According to the mental health charity Mind, several events can cause someone to experience PTSD. Some of these include:
- Being involved in an accident like a car crash
- Being a victim of sexual assault
- Being abused or bullied – this includes instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other abuses that attack your personal identity
- Being held hostage
- Experiencing violence like a terrorist attack or being in military combat
- Watching someone get hurt or killed (this is also known as secondary trauma)
- Experiencing a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake
- More recently, living through the COVID-19 pandemic
- Experiencing a traumatic childbirth as a mother
- Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
- Death of a loved one
Who can get PTSD?
Although it is unknown why some individuals develop PTSD and others do not, it is evident that certain traumatic events generate higher occurrences of PTSD. According to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 6%-32% of Law Enforcement, 9%-22% of EMT/Paramedics and 17%-32% of Firefighters suffer from PTSD. Military service members also fall into this category, with 11%-20% of OIF/OEF veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms.
Mind mentions that certain factors can make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD. Some of these include:
- Recurring trauma
- Poor or no support from friends, family or professionals
- Physical trauma or pain
- Additional stress from abuse, bereavement, financial difficulties, homelessness, incarceration or displacement
- Prior history of depression, stress or anxiety
Can you have PTSD from a workplace?
Unfortunately, an individual can even develop PTSD from a workplace, especially as a result of working in a toxic work environment. It is important to acknowledge that this does not just apply to front line jobs, such as military services, medical staff or law enforcement. In fact, non-physical jobs, including individuals with a desk job, can experience PTSD at one point in their lives, however, the trauma will typically stem from different sources.
In many cases, this can be as a result of bullying and social exclusion at work, with studies pointing to a strong correlation between workplace bullying and PTSD symptoms.
PTSD triggers at work
Including those mentioned above, there are numerous workplace experiences and triggers that can lead to PTSD, such as:
- Workplace bullying
- Emotional abuse
- Workplace injuries
- Breakdowns of workplace relationships
- Being demoted or fired
- Being subject to racism or misogyny
- Burnout and chronic stress
Can burnout give you PTSD?
Research reveals that chronic occupational stress and burnout, and the emotional exhaustion involved, can lead to PTSD. In fact, it was concluded that chronic stress-related burnout could be a risk factor for PTSD.
As an employer, it is imperative that you do everything in your power to support your employees’ wellbeing and prevent these instances from taking place. Although you may not be able to control this entirely, creating a safe and inclusive work environment is a good place to start. This can be achieved through encouraging psychological safety, addressing bias and discrimination, and implementing inclusion initiatives company-wide.
Common PTSD symptoms
Each person’s experience of PTSD is different. Even if two people experience the exact same trauma – for example, a natural disaster – any PTSD they experience will be unique to them. Some common symptoms of PTSD include:
Vivid flashbacks or nightmares
This is a common symptom of PTSD where a person relives the event that caused the trauma. In addition to nightmares and flashbacks, you can also experience physical sensations like sweating, nausea, or tingling. You can also get distressed by visual or psychological reminders of the event.
Feeling on edge
Those experiencing PTSD often show signs of extreme alertness, defined as ‘hypervigilance’. In this state people can appear jumpy or be easily startled. They often find it hard to concentrate on everyday tasks. Hypervigilance also leads to disturbed sleep or insomnia which in turn can cause irritability and aggressive behavior.
Anyone experiencing this symptom actively avoids anything that reminds them of the trauma. This can include mentally blocking out details of the event, refusing to talk about it, feeling emotionally removed from the incident, feeling a constant need to stay busy to avoid thinking about the event and dependence on drugs or alcohol to block out memories.
Another common symptom of PTSD is experiencing extreme emotions like anger, guilt, and sadness. Those with PTSD also experience feelings of isolation and struggle with trust issues.
Some people with PTSD also report experiencing physical symptoms like chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and stomach aches.
The impact of PTSD at work
In addition to the physical symptoms of PTSD, individuals can also experience difficulties in everyday aspects of their lives. This can include essential tasks, such as caring for yourself, maintaining relationships, and coping with change. These challenges can be exacerbated in a professional environment, which can make it difficult to hold down a job and progress in your career without the appropriate support.
Signs of PTSD at work
Workplace PTSD can manifest itself through different symptoms, which can then take their toll on job performance. The key signs of PTSD at work include:
- Anxiety - this could present itself as restlessness or irritability.
- Hyper-reactivity - you may notice changes in behavior as a reaction to certain stimuli, such as startled responses to loud noises or crowded spaces.
- Self-isolation - individuals may avoid social interactions or seem disconnected from the rest of the team, which can lead to a breakdown in working relationships and poor teamwork.
- Lack of focus - intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can make it hard to focus on their work tasks and lead to reduced productivity or an inability to meet deadlines.
- Blaming culture - some individuals with PTSD may develop a tendency to blame themselves for the traumatic event they experienced, which can lead to a lack of understanding for other colleagues' mistakes too.
- Avoidance of work - it is common for individuals with PTSD to actively avoid triggering situations, which can interfere with their abilities to perform certain job duties.
- Lack of engagement - tiredness and memory loss from PTSD can cause staff to disengage from their roles.
5 Ways employers can support employees with PTSD
Here is our top advice on how to help someone cope with and manage PTSD at work:
- Create an open culture
- Regular endorsement of mental health support
- Increasing mental health awareness training for line managers
- Updating bereavement policies
- Proactively offering reasonable adjustments
Create an open culture
Creating a safe and open space for dialogue not only increases awareness, but also normalises conversations about PTSD and more broadly, mental health. Understanding that PTSD is not a sign of weakness is the first step to bringing awareness to this often misunderstood and misrepresented condition. Knowing what causes PTSD and that it affects different people differently is equally important for those who have PTSD, as well as for those who support them.
PTSD requires a medical diagnosis, so it’s important to seek help if someone you know is suffering. There are many great organizations and non-profits that offer support. Creating an open and supportive culture makes it easier for people to ask for help when they need it and removes the stigma attached with mental health issues.
There are several ways that companies can initiate conversations about mental health – from organizing webinars with mental health professionals to sharing helpful resources like blogs and podcasts on the company’s internal network.
Regular endorsement of mental health support
Businesses can refer employees to various mental health support programs including – designated Mental Health Ambassadors or Mental Health First Aiders and other peer support groups. Depending on the size of the company, they can signpost to either internal or external support. Some of these external sources include:
One way that companies can encourage employees to seek help is by offering therapy sessions as part of the broader benefits package. This is an excellent way of normalizing the topic of mental health and bringing it to the forefront.
Increasing mental health awareness training for line managers
Recent research shows that those suffering from PTSD don’t want their companies to address the cause of their trauma. Instead, what they seek is empathy from their peers and an environment where others ‘actively listen’. Employers should provide training to line managers to listen and respond appropriately, ask the right questions and spot early signs of PTSD. Open questions like ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘How are you managing?’ can encourage people to open up and talk about their issues. This is particularly important in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic as people gradually returned to the office. The pandemic and multiple lockdowns have triggered different kinds of distress as well as PTSD.
Businesses have to make certain physical adjustments to create a safe and comfortable working space for employees. In the same way, they need to create a safe space for employees’ mental health as well. The right training for all involved stakeholders is the only way to achieve this.
Updating bereavement policies
Another way that businesses can support those suffering from PTSD especially after a bereavement, is by extending their bereavement leave, where possible, and extending the mental health support offered. Here again, managers should be trained to speak with bereaved employees and use their discretion to determine the kind of support required, on a case-by-case basis.
Proactively offering reasonable adjustments
One of the most effective ways that organisations can support employees with PTSD in the workplace is by proactively offering adjustments to the way they work. For example – if an employee is finding it hard to concentrate, offering a quiet work area for them, where possible, can be helpful to cut out distractions. Using noise-cancelling headphones and listening to soothing music can also help them focus better.
Similarly, if a team member gets easily agitated, it can be helpful to arrange a ‘quiet room’ or space where they can take a short break to calm down. Also, encouraging anxious team members to take multiple short breaks can prevent them from getting overly stressed and help them focus better.
At FDM, we value the mental health of our employees, which is why we’ve established employee assistance and wellbeing programs to ensure our people have the resources they need to be the best version of themselves, from our veteran community through to our graduate community. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to enquiriesUS@fdmgroup.com.