How to Help an Employee With PTSD

When someone undergoes trauma, the symptoms aren't always immediately obvious. Smart employers will recognize the signs

Written by Kim Siddall for Benefits Canada

John is a 44-year-old father of two and a lending officer at a branch of a national bank. Early on in his career, John’s branch was held up in a robbery attempt. While no one was hurt, the event certainly shook up the staff, many of whom took advantage of the on-site counselling provided by the bank.

This past winter, John was involved in a rollover on the highway that resulted in a broken arm and some minor scrapes. Recently, his co-workers have noticed changes in John. He seems to get angry at little things and has mentioned that he and his wife are fighting a lot. John often appears distracted and has difficulty making decisions at work. His colleagues are concerned, but John denies that anything is wrong.

While many people experience or are witness to a traumatic event in their lifetime, most have what can be described as a normal emotional response from which they fully recover. Yet some people experience long-term psychological effects from the impact of a trauma.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 8% of Canadians will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And while many people primarily associate PTSD with returning war veterans, this anxiety disorder can affect people from all walks of life. However, some groups of people are at higher risk for developing PTSD: emergency personnel such as paramedics, firefighters, police, doctors and nurses have double the risk of the average population. Women are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than men.

PTSD symptoms don’t present themselves directly following the traumatic event, but rather, emerge over time. These symptoms can include recurrent flashbacks or nightmares, social withdrawal, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, difficulties with concentration and memory, anxiety or fear when faced with situations that are reminiscent of the traumatic event, a state of being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty in communicating or depressive symptoms.

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People suffering from PTSD may believe that they have adequately dealt with the event and are coping well. Often, the sufferer isn’t aware that they are exhibiting symptoms and doesn’t connect the dots between the changes in their behaviour and the trauma because time has passed. Though the symptoms of PTSD often emerge about three months after a traumatic event, triggers can even cause symptoms to surface years afterward.

Because the symptoms of PTSD are delayed, they often first emerge in the workplace as a performance issue. Julie Hicks, the crisis and trauma manager for Homewood Health in Western Canada indicates that some time after a person has experienced a trauma, their co-workers or people leaders will notice a change in behaviour that seems out of character. In the workplace, PTSD can appear as interpersonal challenges, resistance to authority, bullying behaviour or emotional eruptions.

PTSD is complex, as it is generally diagnosed alongside other mental health conditions. PTSD often brings along with it drug and/or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and obsessive or compulsive behaviours.

The disorder can also appear as an accumulation of the impact of past traumas, dating back to an event occurring in childhood. She stresses that employers need to be aware that by the time an employee shows symptoms of PTSD, the impact of the trauma has been brewing for a long period of time.

Consequently, effective treatment will take time as well. This treatment can include cognitive behavioural therapy to help teach the sufferer effective coping skills, support groups and/or antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Hicks says that once a person suffering from PTSD becomes aware of their maladaptive behaviours and accesses treatment, the prognosis for recovery is very good.

She believes that employers should ensure that their people leaders are trained in how to identify a potential mental health issue, including PTSD, and know how to respond in a supportive and non-judgmental way.

Hicks suggests that the supervisor factually names the troubling behaviour that they are seeing, expresses concern for the employee’s well-being, and makes a referral to their employee and family assistance program (EFAP) as a starting point for support. She also suggests that when a team member has experienced a traumatic event, it’s important for people leaders to take note of any concerns raised by colleagues about their co-worker’s behaviour. Hicks stresses that if a team member feels that something is not right with their co-worker, it needs to be addressed.

Kim Siddall is an associate vice-president with Aon. She has more than 20 years of experience in the health and benefits industry. This column originally appeared at BenefitsCanada.com.
Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com