The events of the past year have prompted many important conversations about things like employee well-being, mental health awareness and looking for PTSD symptoms in the workforce. We’ve had to deal with a global pandemic, social unrest, record unemployment, balancing childcare and eldercare responsibilities and political divisiveness, among many other things.
PTSD is especially important to address in the healthcare field, where employees have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency response workers and ED staff are frequently exposed to traumatic incidences “that may involve exposure to catastrophic events, severely injured children or adults, dead bodies or body parts, or a loss of colleagues.”
Although these reasons are top-of-mind and timely, employees could be experiencing symptoms of PTSD for myriad other reasons and experiences.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a “disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” This exposure can prompt physical, cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral symptoms of stress immediately or occur weeks or months later. This second piece is important for employers to understand: we may be seeing the implications of COVID on employee mental health and symptoms of PTSD in the years to come.
PTSD in the Healthcare Workplace
Until recently, most people associated PTSD with people who serve or served in the armed forces. Veterans are 7% of the U.S. population over age 18, and 11 to 30% of them live with PTSD or PTSD symptoms, depending on service era.
However, the truth is that trauma and PTSD are pervasive among non-veterans as well.
“PTSD is much more common than people think; it’s one of the most common psychological disorders,” notes Lauren Sippel, a clinical psychologist at the National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD). “Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but the more trauma you experience in your life, the more likely you are to experience these symptoms.”
According to the NCPTSD, about 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives, putting them at risk of experiencing symptoms of or developing PTSD.
“Don’t wonder if any of your staff is living with PTSD or its symptoms; accept that some of them do,” says Sippel, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. “Some of your people are struggling – people who are worth keeping on your staff.”
Trauma-related conditions have implications for your employees’ performance, as well as their team’s and your entire organization.
“PTSD is often associated with reduced productivity, both because of symptoms of the disorder, like anger and trouble concentrating, but also because individuals with PTSD regularly suffer with a lot of other problems, like a range of physical health comorbidities,” explains Michelle Bovin, a clinical psychologist at the NCPTSD at VA Boston.
How to Help Employees Dealing with Trauma
Employers should make sure they’re considering PTSD as part of their workplace health and wellness programs and initiatives. As my colleague Kerry Unflat mentioned in her post on mental health awareness, it’s important for leaders to set the tone for how mental wellness is approached in their organizations. This is a vital step in de-stigmatizing mental health and supporting valued employees living with trauma.
Here are 5 ideas for helping employees with PTSD:
- Create a culture of wellness. We talk a lot about a culture of care when it comes to patients and their families and we should extend that culture to employees, too. “This includes acknowledging that everyone – not just patients but also employees, including executives, doctors and medical residents – needs some level of care and self-care, and encouraging them to take time for physical and mental healthcare will not only help when they are suffering, but can also help them to avoid suffering,” explains Bovin, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine.
- Support self-management. There are several ways we can make it easier for employees to care for themselves. First is being more flexible about time off for all kinds of healthcare, from physical therapy to mental health visits. This reduces the stigma of taking time off and normalizes getting treatment, Sippel notes. Encourage self-compassion, too. Remind team members of confidential resources they can access on their own, such as the Employee Assistance Program and hotlines, as well as other resources that may be available through the organization’s medical insurance. In addition, the NCPTSD has a range of mobile apps to help trauma survivors and their family members with self-help, like PTSD Coach and COVID Coach, treatment companions and related issues.
- Support psychological safety. Amy Edmondson coined the phrase psychological safety several years ago and, outside of the team benefits that a psychologically safe environment can provide, this approach can also help with supporting a culture where employees can openly discuss things like mental health and PTSD. Managers can encourage this by being accessible, approachable and willing to openly discuss mental health. Creating psychological safety in your organization and encouraging managers to promote that culture within their teams is one way we can have more open conversations and destigmatize some of the beliefs around PTSD and mental health in the workplace.
- Train managers. First, make sure your HR team is trained and knowledgeable about the symptoms of PTSD and resources available to support employees who may be living with it. Then, ensure frontline managers have a clear understanding of the importance of employee mental health and openness around wellness and mental health. It’s also vital to provide them with the tools and resources to support their employees. More specifically, managers must understand what PTSD is, the signs and symptoms employees may exhibit, how to provide them support and potential workplace accommodations, and how to help them access treatment. Finally, it’s important to prepare managers to handle situations with compassion, patience and understanding, especially since we may be seeing new occurrences of PTSD due to COVID years into the future.
- Encourage conversations. Although conversations with employees and peers about mental health and PTSD can be uncomfortable and challenging, it’s important to have them. Research has indicated that showing compassion and empathy can directly impact employee retention and reduce turnover. The key is to approach them with genuine compassion and support. Bovin suggests offering regular meetings with teams to talk about mental and physical health, especially when team members are dealing with trauma as part of their job, which is often the case for healthcare providers.
Healthcare organizations and their staff are experts at caring for others. Now is the time for healthcare workers to take care of themselves, too.