Bourgon HR Blog: HR Advice & Outsourcing Tips for Small Companies

Does PTSD Only Affect the Vets Your Company Hires?

Posted by Robert Craig on Mon, Nov 30, 2015

Many people associate Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with our returning veterans.  Over the past few years, many corporate leaders have placed high importance on hiring veterans at their firms.  I have heard grumbles from some hiring managers that their new hires may be diagnosed with PTSD and could adversely affect their company. 

Is this true?  Is there a risk from PTSD? 

Contrary to common belief, PTSD is not isolated to our brave vets.  Any person could suffer from PTSD when exposed to a traumatic event.  PTSD can be defined as a list of symptoms that surface after exposure to a traumatic event. 

Mental health professionals diagnose and provide assistance to people suffering with PTSD.  This diagnosis has specific criteria and symptoms, which include: social interaction, capacity to work, reliving the incident (nightmares), avoidance, intrusive thoughts, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, memory problems. This diagnosis is not specific to the battlefield or overseas deployment.  The traumatic event could occur while the person is at work, such as the case of an on-site death or injury, or at any point during their daily life.  In some cases, the PTSD may be associated with an event which occurred prior to employment.  Therefore, this issue is not isolated to veterans and any person can suffer from PTSD.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3.5% of the US population suffers from PTSD at any given time. 

Given the list of symptoms, it is easy to understand how this issue may affect the workplace.  If an electrician or heavy-crane operator is unable to focus while at work, the worker’s safety and the safety of others could be compromised and lead to increased Workers’ Compensation claims.  Fatigue will lead to slower production and worker efficiency.  Absenteeism and employee turnover can also be linked to PTSD.  If an employee is unable to perform well, this performance may lead to termination.  The employee may miss work as a result of PTSD symptoms or to seek treatment. 

Regardless of the reason, the result is the same to a company:  lower production and efficiency.  Companies experience direct costs associated with hiring, training, and filing slots for missing employees.  It is important to understand that this is not a hiring issue.  Companies cannot simply choose to avoid people with PTSD. Statistics indicate nearly every company will have to address this issue at some point in time.

Although every case is unique and a disability determination will be made by the EEOC, PTSD will most likely fall within the definitions and protections afforded by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).  Therefore, companies must provide accommodations for individuals that request them.  Common accommodations are:  private work areas, frequent breaks, time management strategies, identify anxiety triggers, and memory aids.  Often, the accommodations are simple and low-cost. Improving work conditions is not merely a compliance issue; it will lead to a better employee and workforce, higher production & efficiency, and lower risk. 

Traditional corporate responses to, and mandates for PTSD are well documented.  All of the things mentioned in this article are reactive responses to PTSD.  However, I believe corporate leaders should develop proactive measures to minimize the effects of PTSD on a workplace.  I recommend companies conduct a workplace assessment.  This assessment should seek to identify positions that are more likely to be exposed to trauma.  Also, supervisors should be provided training on this topic and the appropriate responses.  This training should include common causes, symptoms, accommodations, and the nature of individuals suffering from PTSD.  Through proactive work and planning, a company can lower their risk by reducing the likelihood of an ADA claim, termination lawsuit, or monetary fine. 

As leaders of a company, it is important to remember you have a duty to protect your employees.  For example, manufacturing facilities maintain robust safety procedures.  In addition, any post-accident protocols are well defined and documented.  These protocols ensure quick treatment for the injured.  Companies should include a procedure that addresses the mental health and wellbeing of affected employees and witnesses.  Most companies do not include any debrief or post-critical incident procedure for affected employees.  These procedures have proven an effective means to mitigate the effects of any critical incident.  Some employers mandate any employee witnessing a critical incident attend a debrief session shortly after the event.  In addition, most employers maintain emergency contact information for all employees, in the event of serious injury or death.  However, many employers do not store that information in a readily available place, especially during evening or overnight shifts, and emergency notifications may take hours to occur.  This delay is not good for the injured employee, their family, or the company.  

Many corporate leaders look at PTSD through a narrow lens of compliance and mandates.  However, a strategic approach will ensure compliance and improve profits, while reducing risk.  The physical aspects of any critical incident are obvious.  The mental health issues are often hidden and may only become apparent when things become too burdensome for the employee or too costly for the employer.  Planning, workplace assessments, and proactive steps will help a company develop policies and training measures to aid your employees and provide your supervisors with additional tools to help the company survive and grow.  

Topics: hr legal compliance