Information for employers
Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen to anyone at any time. It doesn’t discriminate. Those experiencing PTSD can have a variety of symptoms including traumatic flashback episodes, nightmares, feelings of intense stress, a pounding heartbeat, rapid breathing, muscle tension, sweating, sleep problems, hypervigilance, panic attacks, irritability, aggressive behaviour, difficulty concentrating, depression, and a sense of detachment from people and situations – among many other troublesome symptoms. PTSD can be caused by experiencing or witnessing any traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, miscarriage, from childhood abuse, car crash, bullying, terrorist attacks or natural disasters, among many other reasons.
As an employer, it can be difficult. Often those experiencing PTSD will not want to admit, or even realise that they are suffering, and it may not always be straightforward in getting them to seek help or a diagnosis. For a while, even they may not realise why they feel the way they do and this can affect their work and home life. It is important to always ensure your workplace is a safe and secure place for people with mental health problems to feel that they can speak out, as well as know they won’t be discriminated against for doing so. The fear of losing your job can be as big a worry as the initial problem itself – and won’t help recovery.
As an employer, how can we help our colleague?
Ultimately, it is for the employee to notify you, the employer, of their problem. Some may be signed off from work long term, while others will want to keep working and retain a sense of ‘normality’. In these events, it is key that you or your HR team sit down with the individual and discuss ways to help them in their work. Try to work WITH the person on what they want/need so you are supportive and empathetic, rather than be patronising or overbearing (even if you mean well!).
There are some suggestions below of things that can help, or be discussed. These are not ‘one size fits all’ recommendations – everyone will need different things to help feel supported at work.
However, the privacy of the individual and their health concerns should always be paramount before speaking to other staff about recommendations. It should be at the approval of those with PTSD whether others are notified.
This might involve giving employees an option to choose where they sit – some may find it easier to be able to see an access door or window and without having their back to the room, especially if they suffer from hypervigilance. It may help if they can see the whole office so they don’t panic if someone comes up behind them unannounced.
Additionally, they may prefer to sit somewhere where noise is kept to a minimum – perhaps even a private office, where they have some space to breathe without feeling claustrophobic. Having soft ambient music may help, either through a CD player or by allowing them to wear earphones (if they feel comfortable with this). It can also help them to stay focused on the task at hand.
All employees should also be aware of making sudden loud noises, which could trigger a flashback for some sufferers.
Ensure you give advanced warnings of fire alarm tests and fire drills so your colleague can schedule them in their diary.
Allow flexibility in policies where appropriate
If your sickness or absence policy requires a phone call to say they’re not going to be in – consider offering flexibility with this. If you’re having a very bad day, picking up the phone isn’t an option sometimes – so allowing them to relay the message by a text or email could really offer them some peace at a time they need it the most.
Flexible working hours and locations
For many people, having a flexible working option (where appropriate), is particularly beneficial. If an employee has had a particularly bad night’s sleep, for example, look at options for them to come to work late, alternate their hours or shorten shifts.
Where the job allows, offering a colleague the option to work from home can greatly increase the likelihood of them being about ‘come to work’, even on bad days. Sometimes, just knowing the flexibility is available can help them feel at ease.
Additionally, allowing flexibility in when they can take a break can be very useful – rather than having to follow a schedule.
Give them a safe space
Providing your colleague with a ‘safe space’ that they can retreat to can be a huge comfort. A busy staff room can be overwhelming if you need a quiet moment to yourself. For some people, simply having a key to a lockable room, or a quiet area gives them peace – but an area where they can recover after a flashback or panic attack and not be disturbed, can be invaluable.
Allow time off for appointments (and afterwards)
Allowing time off for appointments and treatment sessions will ensure that your colleague is able to get the help they need. Additionally, be mindful that after treatment sessions, they may not be able to come back to work immediately as these can be very draining emotionally and physically.
Don’t expect them to work extra shifts/on days off
Having PTSD is exhausting. Lack of sleep, and your body and mind being on constant alert is draining, so your colleague will NEED their days off. Please respect this and don’t expect, or put pressure on them to work extra shifts just to benefit the business.
Offer designated parking spaces
If you have a car park at work, being able to offer your colleague a designated parking space can help in a variety of ways. It can help them feel more secure, keep routines, allow them a ‘safe space’ in their car, and can help them feel safer if they get to pick their spot e.g. well lit, close to the exit etc.
Offer designated desks/workspaces
Having a permeant desk (rather than hot desking) offers a little more certainty to your colleague – this can help increase feelings of safety and routine which can ease stress and anxiety.
Be aware of emotions of other staff members and customers
Being mindful of other staff members emotions can ensure that you are able to diffuse any potential issues. Additionally, ensure your colleague is adequality prepared if you’re expecting them to speak to a member of the public for example if they’re making a complaint or angry.
Don’t make sudden changes to routine or schedules
Of course, in many working environments, we need to be adaptable – but allowing as much notice as possible for any changes to shift patterns, duties, personnel etc, will help ease stress and tension.
If they are struggling to concentrate, try breaking their tasks down into smaller chunks and giving them a clear, manageable job list to work from. They should also be given additional time for each task without the pressure of looming deadlines, which can paralyse some people. Scheduling apps and software can help the PTSD sufferer stay on top of their organisation without becoming overwhelmed.
Limit unnecessary meetings to allow your colleague as much time as possible to get on with the work they need (although this should be the case anyway!).
Formulate a plan surrounding their triggers
If you are able to devise a plan for your colleague’s triggers – what are they, how to avoid them, what happens if they are triggered etc – it can really help everyone involved. If boundaries are set together, and the right environment and culture is set around these, then results will be more positive.
Appoint a trained Mental Health First Aider
Whilst respecting your colleagues wishes, having a trained mental health first aider can provide reassurance that there is someone around who can really understand and has specialist skills to help them in a crisis.
Specific requirements should also be considered based on the trauma that has caused the PTSD. For example, if the initial trauma was a car accident, don’t expect your employee to travel to meetings in a car (or back of a car, if that is their issue) as this may cause them to panic or feel anxious. Additionally, don’t expect an employee to travel alone to another city late at night if they were assaulted, for example. Provisions should be made to help them feel safe and secure, and anything that requires them getting back to a sense of ‘normal’ should be done with assistance from their doctor or mental health practitioner, and in their own time.
Just showing you care, and understand how they may be feeling can be a huge help to someone suffering PTSD – you can find out more about the symptoms here.
PLEASE NOTE: the privacy of the individual and their health concerns should always be prioritised before speaking to any other staff members about any changes or recommendations being made. It should be at the approval of those with PTSD whether others are notified.
Find out more about what you should be doing as an employer in the NICE Guideline for Mental Wellbeing at Work (updated in March 2022).
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.