Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is described as the lingering physical and emotional effects that a person experiences after a shocking or destabilising event. Although PTSD is more common in war veterans, victims of assault, rape, or military personnel, it can also affect individuals who have experienced trauma in a different setting like a workplace. While the term is used rather casually these days, PTSD, like depression, is a mental illness that must be officially diagnosed by an expert.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the major triggers in recent times for workplace PTSD. And it wasn’t just doctors, nurses, or frontline workers who were routinely exposed to daily trauma during the pandemic who experienced the additional work stress; many employees also felt workplace PTSD-like symptoms when they had to turn up for work during the pandemic. Other triggers for long-term trauma at work can include bullying, toxicity, overwork, or job insecurity.
Common symptoms of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD in the workplace mirror those in other, non-work contexts. These general symptoms can be divided into three main categories:
Intrusive: The most common symptoms are flashbacks of memories and nightmares about their trauma. These intrusive thoughts can get triggered from any conversations or situations that remind them of the trauma.
Arousal: Affected individuals constantly stay alarmed, this condition is also known as hyperarousal. Insomnia, constant fear and inability to concentrate at work are the most common symptoms.
Avoidance: Another common symptom of PTSD is avoidance. The individual may cut off all ties with situations or individuals that remind them of the incident. Feeling constantly worried is also a common symptom of avoidance.
Note that individuals may or may not experience all the symptoms of PTSD.
Workplace PTSD symptoms
Some of the common symptoms at the workplace include:
- Frequent absence at work
- Poor performance
- Decreased productivity
- Extreme distress to people, situations, events that remind them of the trauma and avoiding such situations
- Trouble concentrating at meetings
- Exaggerated response to noise or touch
- May become irritable to minor issues
How to deal with PTSD in the workplace
If you have a colleague with diagnosed PTSD, the first thing is you need to stay flexible because you need to know that there is no one common solution for all. The more you stay flexible, the better you will be in a position to help. You should also maintain open and transparent communication because more information will equip you better to help. Here are a few things you can do.
1. Phrases to use
Often people feel clueless, awkward, intimidated about what to say to a coworker who has PTSD. Start with being a good listener. That’s the first step. Listen carefully to the person and try to gauge the situation. Try using the following phrase if you want to strike a conversation:
- “I care about you, and I want to help.”
- I’m worried about you, how can I help you?
- “I have noticed a change in your performance. Is there anything I can do to help?”
- “Are you comfortable talking about how you are feeling?”
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
2. Understand their needs
While your intentions might be all in good sense, however, it is important to understand their needs through sensitive questions and not through intuition or assumptions. If you notice that their performance at work is dropping, try to understand what is bothering them and how you can help. Understand what your colleague needs and then make conscious efforts to meet their needs by improving the work environment.
3. Be flexible with workplace rules
Once you understand their needs, try to be flexible to accommodate their needs.
For example, if they have trouble concentrating, let them use a closed cubicle to do their work. If they are struggling with poor memory, write down precise and detailed instructions and set regular reminders and check-ins. If they have issues with time management, help them break down complex tasks into smaller chunks. You may also create a daily to-do list and track their progress daily. Providing a mentor may also be helpful. Encourage them to walk away from colleagues if the discussion gets too heated.
If too many people around them are making them anxious, move then workstation or work desk to a place where they can feel comfortable. Offer them flexible work time if they have to be absent from work frequently to manage their condition. If they work better from home, offer them work from home opportunities.
4. Patience is the key
If there is one thing that managers and coworkers can do to help their PTSD colleagues at work, that is having patience. Know that it is difficult to live with PTSD, and negative behavior can only aggravate the situation and impact their productivity, often beyond the person’s control. Practice empathetic listening. Allow them to open up and don’t interrupt them when they start speaking. If they are comfortable communicating in writing, encourage communication through emails.
5. Don’t leave it for later
Act fast. If you notice any change in the behavior or the employee's performance, speak to them immediately. It is always good to talk to them directly and find out the matter rather than leave it to attend later. Be empathetic and direct, share relevant resources, and ask if you can do anything to make it better for them.
Understanding PTSD at work
Such phrases show that you care and if the person agrees to open up or wants to seek help, encourage them to opt for treatment. Help them connect with the right care or offer them to accompany them while visiting a doctor.
Spread awareness about workplace PTSD
Spreading awareness about workplace PTSD can help affected individuals and their colleagues to deal better with the situation. It also helps familiarise these individuals with their rights in the workplace.
While managers need to be more empathetic towards the person affected with PTSD, they also need to spread awareness about the condition so that the team is comfortable and finds new ways to work with anyone affected with PTSD. Awareness will also help them be more patient with their colleagues and create an inclusive work culture.
It is difficult to live with PTSD, and ignoring the condition can only worsen the condition. If you have PTSD, know that care is available and that seeking help can significantly improve your life. If you notice PTSD in someone else at work, be empathetic and flexible, spread awareness, and genuinely show that you care.
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