PTSD in the workplace: how to recognise it and support employees with the disorder

British army soldiers on a homecoming parade. PHOTO: Andrew Price/REX/Shutterstock

A training programme has been launched for managers dealing with former servicemen and women with PTSD. Piers Bishop explains the rationale behind the programme, and how management training can help all employees with the disorder.

Would you be able to recognise the symptoms if staff were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and be able to direct them to treatment? Most line managers and HR staff would answer “no”.

Too often the symptoms of PTSD are taken to be indicative merely of a “bad attitude” – such as absenteeism, mood swings, and the misuse of alcohol and drugs.

Failure to identify an employee with PTSD and help them to deal with it can lead to underperformance and the loss of potentially productive and high-performing people, in addition to the human cost, including the effect on colleagues.

The rate of occurrence of PTSD is estimated to be one in 25 among the general population. This may be similar to the ratio for former members of the armed forces – however, some estimates for veterans are as high as one in five for those who experienced combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Also, the complexity of the disorder tends to be much greater for veterans.

Charity for veterans’ mental welfare

PTSD Resolution was set up to provide free treatment for veterans to resolve the issues of military trauma. The charity provides a helpline for sufferers and access to local, accredited therapists, who number about 200 across the UK.

PTSD Resolution closely monitors the results of its programme, using a measurement scale approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). In almost eight out of 10 cases, the condition is resolved to the satisfaction of both the veteran and therapist.

Increasingly, the charity is working with HR teams and line mangers in organisations to help them understand and recognise the symptoms of trauma.

PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to an event, which results in psychological trauma. This may involve the threat of death or injury to the traumatised sufferer or to someone else, overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope. Symptoms of PTSD include experiencing the original trauma again through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of the stimuli associated with the trauma, and increased arousal..

In the workplace, the condition may result in avoidable accidents, extended sick leave, and sometimes even behaviour that results in dismissal. This may also involve a major legal liability for the employer.

Trauma training

The demand for assistance from employers of former soldiers has been such that PTSD Resolution set up one-day seminars to help line managers, HR specialists and other staff to recognise the problems of trauma, however it was caused.

If employees experience the effects of trauma, it is important they understand that they are not “going mad” and that this is not a sign of weakness. The distress and other symptoms are a normal reaction to certain events; they can happen to anyone. Everyone has a threshold of tolerance beyond which trauma can occur.

Managers learn in the PTSD Resolution training that it is fine for an employee to talk about the event and the trauma, but it may not necessarily help. Treatment is needed. The sooner it is started, the faster will be the return to normal life. If an employee broke a leg, they would get it fixed professionally – it should be no different with mental health issues.

The employee’s doctor probably will not be a trauma specialist. In fact, the GP may have little or no knowledge of PTSD symptoms and may just offer anti-depressants. However, the latest medical thinking is opposed to medication for post-traumatic issues; sufferers should insist on seeing someone who is qualified to deal with the problem.

Managing PTSD in the workplace

There is a strong chance that with appropriate treatment anyone suffering from PTSD will experience a good recovery, with the proper help.
Directors of organisations need to develop a culture that is responsible about the issue of mental health: operational machinery is maintained regularly and repaired when necessary, so it is rational to adopt a similar approach with your people, at the very least.

If you manage a staff member who has experienced a potentially traumatic event of which you are aware, and their behaviour seems to have changed, it could be a sign that they need help.

It is an advisable precaution to let them know that you are aware of what they have been through, that the organisation’s policy is to be open about stress reactions, and to get help if necessary so that everyone can continue to work well together.

When an employee does not seem to be returning to their normal attitude and behaviour after a few weeks following an incident, it is a good idea to open a dialogue about how he or she would like to be helped to recover.

It is sensible to develop a relationship with an organisation such as PTSD Resolution that has experience of post-traumatic reactions and can deliver brief interventions that return people to work.

The cost of a typical course of treatment will certainly be much less than the expense of supporting an unwell employee down the line; or worse still, coping with the collateral damage if someone does something unfortunate, while traumatised, in the course of employment.

Piers Bishop is an organisational coach and psychotherapist, founder and clinical director of the charity for resolving UK Forces’ military trauma, PTSD Resolution, and co-founder of WeThrive, the staff wellbeing and coaching app. For further information on Trauma Awareness Training for Employers, visit www.ptsdresolution.org.

5 Responses to PTSD in the workplace: how to recognise it and support employees with the disorder

  1. Avatar
    Eve nutley 1 Aug 2017 at 1:46 pm #

    I have a member of staff who suffers from PTSD (ex army). I want to help him to be able to be a
    good employee who is a value to himself and the company. Could you please advise me on where to find information?

  2. Avatar
    Tori Raddison 23 Dec 2019 at 8:35 pm #

    It’s interesting that PTSD affects 1 in 25 people and we still aren’t trained to handle it. I think it’s important to recognize the symptoms so that people can help those who need it. PTSD can come from all kinds of things so it’s good to know people’s triggers.

  3. Avatar
    Eda 9 Mar 2020 at 2:36 am #

    My manager berated me and I raised my voice at her, she was belittling me because I missed a day of group work training in child protection, I tried to explain to a senior worker that I was triggered the last time child abuse came up in training and she said I should tell the trainer. It’s not that easy, the trainers are strangers. The day of training I had a bad episode with panic attacks all day and could not go. I see no point in it as I only work nights and only with adults. This manager has never supported me when a coworker sexually harassed me and another bullied without mercy, instead swapping me to night shifts by myself. I don’t mind the isolation, people just want to hurt me these days it seems. She talks to me like I’m a naughty child, not to any other staff – she is civil with everyone else. She reminds me so much of abusive foster carer I had to live with.

  4. Avatar
    JohnRJ 21 Mar 2020 at 6:21 pm #

    I have a coping mechanism in work for PTSD and been accused of abusing company resources for personal use. I am a gifted individual, brain damaged with special needs and do a lot during my lunchtime for charity of which I got accused of abusing company resources again, yet the company encourages involvement in the community.

    What I do at lunchtime doesn’t get in the way of my work, and my coping mechanism is used to help me make note of things which get my adrenaline going to get them off my mind.

    I haven’t sent anything to anyone as this was supposed to be a private journal to put my mind at rest but security picked up on it and I’ve been disciplined and threatened with dismissal if I use company IT to record my feelings and cope with the problems which trigger my PTSD again.

    I have been contemplating suicide in these hard times especially with the coronavirus closing everywhere down making every aspect of life doom and gloom as well as increased insecurity.

    It reminds me of the emotional and physical abuse I suffered in special needs school where I was institutionalised and cut off from society and tried to kill myself. Similar thoughts are entering my mind daily.

  5. Avatar
    Satoshi 5 Apr 2020 at 2:06 am #

    Hello JohnRJ. I found this blog because my C-PTSD is back in these coronavirus times. I’m also a gifted adult and share your pain. Here is my takeaway from past experiences: gifted people make about 2% of the population, and most advices found in self-development books, management, policies,… don’t apply to us. Our sources of motivation are different (less selfish, higher order).
    Therefore, being with others is not necessarily positive (see also Eda’s post). I volunteered many times and have been bullied for that. I’ve been fired for being too good. This is how I ended up with a C-PTSD.

    Your company encourages involvement in the community, but that applies to the other 98% of people, not necessarily to gifted adults. I know, it may sound bizarre but again, that’s my takeaway. You’re doing it for the greater good, they may be doing it for looking nice so people buy the products or services, which is certainly not your case.

    We, gifted people, got a gift and want to give back or give further, to the next. But if people don’t want it, there’s nothing you can do.

    I often compare giftedness to being on a motorbike, when others are on a bicycle. They cannot comprehend how one can go 100 km/h and you find it boring, if not difficult, to go 20 km/h. They will get scared, and if some can manage their fear, most bully, abuse power, etc… It’s unfortunate but it’s human nature.

    That’s why, like Eda and you, I ended up mostly alone, with a few gifted friends scattered in the world (because our horizons are large).

    In summary, most of the rules don’t apply to us (except laws and regulations, of course, and laws of physics,…) and it’s to us to find what suit us. Steve Jobs said that the world around us has been created by people not smarter than us (98% less smart actually) and following rules they created isn’t satisfactory to us.

    Find your own way. It will be lonely sometimes, but you may meet great people you wouldn’t have met if you stayed in the crowd. Good luck!

Leave a Reply