How to Manage PTSD in the Workplace
Mental illness, including conditions such as anxiety and depression, is the leading cause of sickness absence in the United Kingdom, with the HSE reporting that approximately 822,000 workers experienced mental ill-health in 2021.
Industries with higher-than-average rates of stress include public facing roles, such as public administration, defence or social security, those working in health-related fields, and emergency service workers. In some cases, work can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—an issue affecting approximately 3% of people in the UK.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic experience, such as being a victim or witness of a crime, being involved in a car accident, or suffering a serious injury, among many other causes.
People who have PTSD can experience a wide array of symptoms that make it difficult to function as usual, to carry out daily tasks, and to interact with others socially and emotionally. The symptoms may also lead them to avoid the people, places and activities which remind them of the traumatic event itself.
While cases and characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder can look different in different people, the symptoms of PTSD can be grouped into four main categories:
- Intrusive memories: people with PTSD often experience flashbacks, nightmares, and overwhelming memories about their trauma. These intrusive thoughts can be triggered by situations or conversations that remind them of the event and make them feel as if they are reliving or can’t escape it.
- Avoidance: people with PTSD may try to shut out feelings about their trauma. They avoid the people, places or situations that remind them of the traumatic event in order to avoid thinking and talking about it.
- Negative changes in thinking and mood: people with PTSD may have negative thoughts about themselves, other people and about the world, making it difficult to maintain close relationships. They may also feel hopelessness about the future and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. It’s common for people with PTSD to have memory problems, including not remembering aspects of the traumatic event.
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions: people with PTSD may be easily startled or frightened, always on high alert for potential dangers. They may also experience intense emotions such as irritability, angry outbursts, aggressive behaviour, guilt or shame.
If these issues last longer than a few weeks, or they are extreme, a mental health professional may determine that a person has PTSD and offer anti-depressants or talking therapies as treatment.
What is Workplace PTSD?
Although workplace PTSD may traditionally be associated with physical jobs, such as firefighting or working in the army, there is no set rule for what causes it. The cause can range from an injury that happened at work, to the realisation that working conditions are unsafe and have the potential to cause harm.
In recent years, abuse towards front line staff as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, has highlighted the affects that workplace abuse can have. Hospitality and NHS workers experienced the brunt of this with reports showing abuse towards NHS workers has doubled in the last 5 years and many employees coming forwards to share their experiences. Other workers such as retail employees, cleaners and police officers also faced a staggering increase in abuse, leaving many of those who experienced or witnessed the abuse, with PTSD.
Workplace PTSD can also be caused by non-physical or front line jobs, such as those in an office who may face psychological abuse or discrimination. Exposure to discrimination such as racism, sexism, or ableism, being belittled or overworked can all lead to PTSD and other issues related to emotional wellbeing.
Lastly, workplace PTSD can arise when an event at work triggers a stress response from a previous traumatic event. This could be anything from having to walk through a dark alley to get to work, to a colleague reminding the individual of an abuser.
One way to prevent a workplace incident developing into PTSD is to have a clear incident protocol in place. This includes ensuring that all relevant risk assessments are conducted and are regularly reviewed, having a process in place for reporting incidents after they have happened, and having a system in place for employees to access help during an emergency. With Peoplesafe, users can raise an alarm directly to our 24/7 ARC who monitor alarms and manage life-threatening emergencies on a daily basis. Here, the Alarm Controller will listen, reassure the user, and contact the emergency services via our unique access to police control rooms, if necessary. This 1-1 support during an incident can drastically improve the outcome, with our service saving several lives every year.
As well as improving the outcome of an emergency, the reassurance and peace of mind offered by our Alarm Controllers can limit the psychological impact of an incident on the user. Constant support ensures that they don’t feel alone during the incident, and the comfort that help is only a button press away provides reassurance when returning to work. Our own research has highlighted the comfort that our service can provide:
Supporting an Employee with PTSD
Workplace PTSD, whether caused by the workplace itself or by an external factor, needs to be on the radar for companies looking to be proactive in supporting employee health and wellbeing. Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist highlights the wider business implications of PTSD, she commented “Workplace PTSD can negatively impact attendance, job performance, productivity, efficiency, and efficacy,” she later added “It can also cause accidents, errors, and turnover”.
Unfortunately, PTSD symptoms can appear at any time of the day, including when the individual is working. If you have an employee with PTSD, it is therefore important to try and understand their triggers, symptoms and the support they need to continue working effectively.
Allow reasonable adjustments
While an employee is actively working through their PTSD in the workplace, they may struggle with tasks and situations at work that previously did not phase them. In these instances, it is likely that they will need to make some adjustments to their working routine. If you’re unsure of what adjustments to make, start by asking them what they are struggling with and what you can do to improve this for them. Here are some common issues people with PTSD experience and adjustments you can make:
- Anxiety: If someone with PTSD is made increasingly anxious by a busy work environment, consider offering to move their desk to a quieter area, or allowing them to work from home where possible. If this is not possible, allowing them to wear headphones can help to distract from the hectic environment and calm their anxiety. If the employee is anxious about an incident occurring again, providing them with a form of personal protection to access help in an emergency can ease their mind and provide added reassurance.
- Concentration: Allowing the individual to work from home or in a quieter part of the office will also help to limit the distractions they face. Distractions can be further limited by setting up email redirects and passing small tasks to other colleagues.
- Poor memory: Creating a list of projects and tasks that need completing, or using a project management tool, can help employees to keep on track of their tasks. It can also help to break these lists down into incremental goals with daily or weekly ‘to do’ lists. Ensuring all meetings and deadlines are set up in their calendar and blocking out specific focus time can also help them to stay on task.
Try to remember that recovery is different for every individual who experiences PTSD, so the most important thing is to maintain an open dialogue with the individual. Encouraging them to let you know how they are coping and if they need any additional support will allow you to support them in the way that they need.
People with PTSD may feel embarrassed to ask for help, so remind them that you and other team members are available to support them as and when this is needed. Ask how they are coping, but also pay attention to how they respond in order to make sure you do not push them. Some employees may be more open to communicating via email than face to face, so offer this as an option if they would rather.
Encourage external support
Although you can offer support internally, encourage the person to seek professional help for their PTSD if this may be beneficial for them. Some organisations use external resources such as an EAP (employee assistance programme) which can refer employees to mental health support, such as counselling or therapies.
Introducing a personal safety solution can be beneficial for employees working through PTSD, providing them with peace of mind that they have a means to access help in an emergency. Peoplesafe provide a range of safety devices and apps to ensure the most appropriate solution for your employee’s needs, with features such as fall detection which will automatically raise an alarm to our 24/7 ARC if the user falls, to body worn cameras which act as a deterrent against abuse for public facing staff. Alternatively, the Peoplesafe SOS App can give employees the reassurance that they need while commuting or working alone in low-risk roles.
It’s vital to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing someone with PTSD. The key is to be flexible, encourage open communication, and remain patient.
Getting Help if you Have PTSD
Work-related PTSD can interfere with your ability to exercise your profession, relate to others, and enjoy life. If you think you are suffering from PTSD, see a legal professional. You may be entitled to compensation, which will help pay for the therapy that can put you back on track so that your enjoyment of life, earning potential and social life improve.
Workers’ compensation and personal injury
Your lawyer will explain the difference between workers’ compensation (which is insurance-based) and a personal injury case (which is brought against your employer for negligence). In a personal injury case, you can also claim for damages for pain and suffering, as well as for additional losses such as medical bills, lost earning capacity, and loss of enjoyment of life. To file a successful personal injury suit, you will have to show that your employer breached their Duty of Care to protect you.
If you can demonstrate that your PTSD was caused by/at your workplace, seeing a legal professional who specialises in this type of claim is vital. This is because you may be entitled to legal compensation for PTSD incurred at work.
The first step is to obtain a PTSD diagnosis. You will need to show that you have been exposed to a traumatic event, that you are re-experiencing this trauma, that you are actively avoiding anything that reminds you of the event, and that you are experiencing changes to your personality/emotional responses. You will also need to show that you are having recurrent feelings of arousal. In court, you will need to prove that your PTSD was caused by work—something that is not difficult to prove if, for instance, you have recently been involved in a highly stressful situation such as a war, large-scaled medical emergency, or disaster. For instance, in the US, PTSD rates surged among firefighters, medical staff, and other responders following the September 11th terrorist attack.
What Help is Available?
There are various approaches to PTSD which can help to soothe symptoms. These include cognitive behavioural therapy, which highlights the vital link between your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Another ‘gold standard treatment’ is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, which involves recalling the traumatic incident while following the movement of your therapist’s finger. Seeking support and advice from dedicated organisations such as Combat Stress, Rape Crisis, or Victim Support may also be helpful.