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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Getting Workers the Help They Need

About half of the U.S. population will experience a traumatic event, and though a far smaller percentage will develop PTSD as a result, services are usually available to employees who experience trauma.

February 28, 2013

Recent events such as Hurricane Sandy and the early February blizzard that slammed the Northeast brought workplace preparedness back into the forefront. Employment experts agree that companies should have policies and procedures in place to deal with the psychological effects of such traumatic events.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster or traumatic event such as workplace violence, some victims will experience short-term psychological effects. A subset of those people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, an anxiety condition that results from life-threatening events.

Left untreated, PTSD can linger for years and affect memory, sleep, concentration, ability to enjoy life and also interpersonal relationships.

"Most employers don't have procedures in place other than supervisors or co-workers sensing that something is awry, and eventually building up the courage to talk with their colleague and make a referral to an individual practitioner," says Doug Hicks, a mental health case manager with The Standard, an insurer based in Portland, Oregon. "HR departments should handle these, and all psychiatric cases, with extreme confidentiality and sensitivity. Caring and involved managers and leaders within the company, in my opinion, go a long way toward helping and healing the individual suffering from a psychiatric condition."

Training human resources department individuals, managers and leaders on warning signs of psychological distress and PTSD can help, too, Hicks says.

David Pawlowski, a clinical manager at ComPsych Corp., an employee assistance program provider based in Chicago, says that benefit managers should not be expected to become experts on PTSD and mental health.

"But they are experts on the benefits and services available to employees," Pawlowski says. "They can help employees to get the help they need."

About half of the U.S. population will experience a traumatic event, he says, and though a far smaller percentage will develop PTSD as a result, services are usually available to employees who experience trauma.

People exposed to a traumatic event can experience shock, loss of appetite, dizziness and fatigue. Longer-term symptoms include difficulty completing tasks, making decisions and problem-solving, as well as avoidance of certain places or people that could be triggers to re-experiencing the event. Drug or alcohol abuse can develop as a coping mechanism, Pawlowski says.

One tool commonly used by employers after a natural disaster or other trauma is a group counseling session, Pawlowski says. A trained counselor will appear on-site to talk about the event and people's reactions.

ComPsych deploys members of its critical incidence team to facilitate these events and also do one-on-one in-person or telephonic counseling. Team members are all master's-level clinicians who specialize in trauma.

"It makes sense to come together as a group and talk about people's experiences and have a counselor normalize those feelings," Pawlowski says.

Incidents where employers have called in on-site group counselors include the aftermath of bank robberies, hurricanes and local mass shootings, he adds.

Even events that happen far away can create a need for response. ComPsych got calls from employers from all over the country requesting counseling sessions for workers in the wake of the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 27 people dead including 20 children, Pawlowski says.

"One of the most common questions we heard from employees was how to talk with their children about the shooting," he says.

A caring work environment is often the best medicine when tragedy strikes, The Standard's Hicks says. "Being sensitive and assuring confidentiality when handling the matter is essential," he says. "Assisting the employee to get the best treatment options is extremely beneficial."

Listening to individual employee needs is also important. One person might need a sympathetic supervisor while another might need more reduced distractions in the workplace, Hicks says.

PTSD can affect job performance and quality of life but there are ample treatment options available to help individuals heal from traumatic events, experts say.

"The more managers and company leaders know about the services available," Pawlowski says, "the better they will be able to respond when an event happens."

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.