PTSD in the workplace

business associates

I volunteer for a nonprofit organization that helps veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts transition from military service to civilian work. We mentor these brave men and women as they attempt to overcome the barriers in making this difficult transition. Those lucky enough to have avoided physical injury may still have mental injuries from seeing or living through dangerous events. Those mental injuries often translate into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Of course, you don’t have to be a soldier to have experienced a traumatic event. The National Center for PTSD estimates 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. These “hidden wounds” can be terribly debilitating when trying to obtain and maintain gainful employment. Perhaps they don’t have to be.

First, what does PTSD look like and what are the symptoms? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms
    • Flashbacks
    • Bad dreams
    • Scary thoughts
  2. Avoidance symptoms
    • Staying away from certain situations and/or places
    • Feeling emotionally numb, guilty or depressed
  3. Hyperarousal symptoms
    • Easily startled
    • Feeling tense
    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Angry outbursts

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employees are not required to disclose a diagnosis of PTSD.1 However, they are required to disclose their condition if and/or when they need an accommodation to perform the essential duties of the job.[1] The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reminds us that employers can ask an employee with PTSD to submit to a medical examination if the need for the examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity. Employers typically will ask an employee to submit to an examination after the employee has had an incident on the job that calls into question his or her ability to adequately perform the job or to determine if the employee can safely return to work. This is often called a “fitness-for-duty exam.”

The degree of work limitations related to PTSD — as with all mental health conditions — will vary among individuals. My favorite resource, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), suggests asking the following questions:

  1. What limitations is the employee experiencing? How do these limitations impact job performance?
  2. What specific job tasks are problematic?
  3. What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems?
  4. Has the employee been consulted?
  5. Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?

PTSD can negatively impact memory, concentration, time management and organizational skills, just to name a few. JAN encourages employers to consider the following accommodation ideas:

Memory

  • Use a daily or weekly task list; provide written instructions
  • Use electronic organizers or handheld devices
  • Allow additional training time

Concentration

  • Provide private space
  • Allow for the use of white noise or let the employee play soothing music using a headset
  • Plan for uninterrupted work time

Time Management

  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and steps
  • Schedule weekly meetings with supervisor or mentor
  • Remind employee of important deadlines via memos or emails

Organization

  • Use calendars to mark meetings and deadlines
  • Use electronic organizers
  • Assign a mentor to assist the employee

Remember, the employee should come to you to disclose a medical condition and request an accommodation(s).2 Employees can do this at any time when an accommodation is needed to perform the essential functions of a job.2 Both verbal and written requests are acceptable, but the employee is responsible for providing documentation of the disability.[2]

It is possible for employers to assist in removing the barriers to workplace productivity for employees with PTSD. This entry is a great place to start, but additional information can also be found through JAN and the EEOC.


[1]Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Job Accommodation Network. 2008. Available at: http://askjan.org/media/ptsd.html. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011.

[2]Frequently Asked Questions About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & Employment. America’s Heroes at Work. Available at: http://www.americasheroesatwork.gov/forEmployers/factsheets/FAQPTSD/. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011.

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