Four Strategies to Manage PTSD in the Workplace

We often hear the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) referring to people who have experienced life-threatening events like military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, or serious accidents.

Today, the Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.

Today’s Reality

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of PTSD symptoms among the general public increased from 7% to 53.8% during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study that appeared in the academic journal PLOS noted PTSD rates are high among health care workers fighting on the front lines of COVID-19 (21.5%). And, if that isn’t compelling enough, a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association

(JAMA) found 30.2% of patients who recovered from COVID experienced PTSD.

As employees gradually return to the office, HR and managers need to anticipate high stress levels, anxiety, and depression. Many employees will feel apprehensive about returning to work and the uncertainties ahead. Others will struggle with leaving the safety of their homes.

After all, it’s been a year of emotional stress and fear for many. So how can employers support workers who may suffer from PTSD? Here are four strategies.

Develop a Return-to-Work Plan

Many employees are terrified about returning to work. Some are anxious about reentering. Others are worried about a COVID outbreak or they won’t meet expectations.

In other cases, employees may already be experiencing PTSD, whether it’s trauma from the past, hardship during the pandemic, or suffered the loss of a loved one. If an employee is diagnosed with PTSD and not ready to return to the office, it’s important to develop a return-to-work plan. It will not only ease them into the transition, but make the workplace seem more welcoming.

Start by having a discussion with the employee about their fears and concerns regarding returning to work. Make sure to listen to what type of accommodations and safety precautions they need to feel comfortable. For example, would an in-office hybrid approach help ease the transition to being on-site, full-time?

Allow workers to maintain flexible schedules and encourage time off for treatment or therapy—offer employees additional training to help with focus, productivity, and handling emotional triggers. Certain employees may request an isolated workspace. And since many PTSD patients have memory issues, managers can offer to put assignments in writing in addition to verbal instructions.

Just remember, what might work for one person, might not work for everyone. It has to be addressed by employers on a case-by-case basis.

Training to Spot the Condition

Many employees might be unaware of their own PTSD condition, which is why it’s crucial to schedule mental health training for every employee. It teaches employees about mental health conditions like PTSD and how to identify warning signs in themselves and others, which can also help support colleagues or family members in need.

PTSD symptoms often include nightmares or unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of situations, heightened reactions, anxiety, or depression. Employees may be absent more often, less focused and productive, experience emotional outbursts or panic attacks, or be easily distracted. Others might suffer from poor relationships.

And, because PTSD symptoms can impact a work environment on an ongoing basis, employers must provide regular mental health resources and tools to continue safeguarding the well-being and health of their workforce. Even something as simple as offering employees a complimentary subscription to Calm’s meditation app could help lower stress and anxiety.

By address mental health needs and enhancing training, employers create a more empathetic and understanding culture, helping to reduce the stigma around PTSD.

The Right Diagnosis and Proper Treatment

Employers play a key role in helping to improve PTSD in the workplace. Employers are adding mental health benefits to health care plans, establishing employee assistant programs (EAP), offering in-office counseling, enhancing caregiving support, and the list goes on. There are several practical steps to help employees take full advantage of their benefits package and ensure those with conditions like PTSD not only receive an accurate diagnosis but receive effective treatment.

For instance, communicate benefits information to employees year-round and not just at open enrollment time or the week leading up to office return. Second, develop a resources hub to help employees find information and consider highlighting a specific benefit each month, so employees continue to stay educated on benefits.  Finally, identify the right person to reach out to with questions. This is critical as employees return to the office.

The fourth and most important recommendation is taking advantage of technology. An automated communications platform that serves as a centralized location where employees find care, plan choices, training resources, and more is the most time-saving solution. Consider selecting a platform that also has proactive outreach that personalizes communication to each employee. This will help those suffering from PTSD feel heard, supported, and safe.  

Game-Changing Technology

Let’s elaborate on the technology recommendation from above.

A data-driven communications platform that ingests employer claims, pharmacy, and ecosystem data can help prioritize the right message at the right time for the right employee using compelling behavioral science principles. The result? That employee receives timely, relevant messaging around PTSD that motivates them to act.

This is especially important because employees suffering from PTSD have difficultly engaging or avoid information altogether. Rather than asking employees to visit a microsite, which is reactive behavior, an automated message, based on their favorite mode of communication – text, push notification, or email – is a proactive way to engage employees and make them aware of how to get help or support. That’s why a platform needs to serve up the right call-to-action to that employee in unique ways. A personalized messaging platform should also integrate predictive analytics, which can help determine which employee will most value mental health benefits. Employers can also use the platform to proactively connect workers to the correct PTSD resources, information, and benefits.

And, because all employees have different priorities, a platform that can segment messaging recipients makes it more relevant to the employee. After all, “all office” emails aren’t relevant to every employee. By segmenting audiences, employers ensure employees only receive messages relevant to them.

Finally, the same platform can help execute anti-stigma campaigns, suggest mental health and wellness events, or serve up PTSD training to workers. And, because there is a shortage of mental health professionals and so many people looking for a therapist or psychiatrist, the platform can suggest professionals within the network or offer up benefits such as on-demand therapy.

PTSD can be a sensitive topic, but with the right resources, a solid return to work plan, using the right technology, and engaging with the right resources, the organization’s health will thrive post-COVID.

Are you looking to support PTSD in the post-pandemic workplace? Read Four Strategies for Creating and Sustaining an Empathetic Culture