PTSD Happens in the Workplace as Well as on the Battlefield
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not just for soldiers. When people are seriously hurt in on-the-job injuries, it can leave mental as well as physical scars, and the mental trauma can be just as tough to deal with. Other workers who knew the victim, or witnessed a serious or fatal incident, can also experience symptoms of traumatic stress.
After such an event, people may have difficulty concentrating, show signs of irritability, become hyper-alert to danger, have an exaggerated, startled response, or feel edgy. This is a normal reaction following a traumatic event. However, if these symptoms continue beyond 30 days, they can be classified as PTSD. People can lose their jobs as they struggle with this, and may have trouble adjusting to new jobs.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at East Lansing-based Michigan State University, said the most common cause of PTSD in America is a bad traffic accident, where a loved one is killed, or someone is trapped for a time in a vehicle, or arrives and sees a dead body. “These are far more common than combat or rape,” he said. “And then there are times when workplaces are the scenes.”
Feelings of numbness and isolation are common for those with PTSD, causing them to avoid the treatment needed to resume normal activities. Ochburg recommends intervening as quickly as possible, with the same seriousness as a physical disease.
Ochberg emphasized, “PTSD is real, and persons with PTSD and related traumatic stress syndromes deserve the same respect and support that individuals and families suffering the impact of cancer, heart disease and strokes receive.”
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that roughly eight percent of the general population may be have PTSD in their lifetime. Women are more than twice as likely as men to experience PTSD.
Persons coping with PTSD need the support of their employers and co-workers, said Bob VandePol, president of the Crisis Care Network, Grandville, Mich.
“There’s a higher risk that a person may tell off their boss, quit precipitously, be afraid to come back to (the) site the next day or respond harshly to co-workers,” said VandePol. “There are a lot of bad things that can happen. It’s important psychologically to contain that incident through facility resiliency so that people can bounce back.”
Helping to overcome the effects of PTSD in the workplace requires close attention to employees, while normalizing your reaction to them, VandePol said. “Having others witness your experience the symptoms of PTSD can be uncomfortable and embarrassing or shame-inducing, People experiencing PTSD will sometimes avoid situations where people can see them not at their best.”
Untreated PTSD is a likely cause of chronic pain, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and sleep problems that inhibit a person’s ability to work and interact with others. PTSD sufferers may re-experience the trauma with flashbacks and intrusive memories of the incident. They often avoid or leave events or situations that remind them of the trauma, said Dr. Richard J. Ottenstein, CEO of the Sykesville, MD-based Workplace Trauma Center, a provider of crisis management and training services.
“It can be a sight, it can be a sound, it can be a smell, it can be a voice, it can be a sudden movement,” Ottenstein said. “Memories are stored in the brain coming from all our senses, so that when we experience something, there are memories that are stored about the sounds, the visual images, the smell, possibly even the taste, the temperature, sometimes even the atmospheric pressure.”
Ottenstein said to imagine how hard it would be to return to work after a colleague lost an arm, or for a truck driver to go down the same road where he recently witnessed a crash that killed members of a family.
PTSD is treatable, but challenging, said Ottenstein. Early support is important, starting the day of or the day after the event so the employees can take their time to help themselves or each other.
George S. Everly Jr., is associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and executive director of Resiliency Science Institutes at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Training Centers. He stresses preventive measures for PTSD.
“Preventative medicine is always more important than the treatment,” Everly said. He advises companies to develop a relationship with a crisis intervention service. Such an organization can dispatch trained professionals to help employers restore health and productivity to their workforce after a traumatic event.
Company managers can also be trained and given a concise plan on how to handle traumatic events that cause PTSD. Everly has helped with training on managing personal stress and developing “psychological body armor” before an incident happens. He said the front-line leadership needs to be cohesive and resilient and able to quickly bounce back from an incident. And it’s important to have a plan to handle PTSD issues when they arise.
Mark Galban, a social worker at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, suggests supervisors know their company’s policies and make reasonable accommodations for employees with PTSD. For example, if someone is having a hard time in customer services, perhaps he or she can be given a position with less public interaction. This kind of help lets employees feel supported by their employer.
State laws vary, but most require a psychological disability evaluation by a trained professional to verify an employee has PTSD and not average job stress. This evaluation is submitted to the employee’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier. Compensation may include pay for lost wages, as well as treatment for any physical symptoms as well as PTSD.
Source: Safety+Health magazine