Addressing PTSD in the Workplace
The occurrence of school shootings, store robberies and job-related fatalities have all contributed to the increase in cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in the workplace. This session at the RIMS 2019 Annual Conference and Exhibition discussed the need to address the issue on a broader basis.
- Dr. Teresa Bartlett, Senior Vice President, Medical Quality, Sedgwick
- Denise Algire, Director, Risk Initiatives & National Medical Director, Albertsons Companies
- Dr. Steve Wiesner, On-the-Job Medical Director – Workers’ Compensation Service, Kaiser Permanente
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex disorder which affects the memory and emotional responses of a person who has experienced or witnessed an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. The worse the trauma, the more likely it is that a person will develop PTSD and the worse the symptoms. The most severely affected patients are unable to work, have trouble with relationships and have great difficulty parenting their children.
MRI and PET scans show changes in the way memories are stored in the brain for patients who suffer from PTSD. The disorder actually changes the portions of the brain that regulate the fight or flight response and the area where memories are coded and stored. Symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, increased anxiety and avoidance/numbing. Prognosis is dependent on the patient’s health prior to developing the disorder, but is improved with early treatment, preferably within the first 12 months. Patients with PTSD are more likely to have amplified pain and stress reactivity when they are injured, leading to longer-tail claims.
Major life-threatening events that can lead to PTSD:
- Combat or military exposure
- Sexual or physical assault
- Childhood sexual or physical abuse
- Serious accidents, such as a car wreck
- Terrorist attacks
- Natural disasters, such as fire, tornado, hurricane, flood or earthquake
When PTSD occurs in the workplace, an employer’s program should address early intervention, specific functional limitations, treatment consistent with care and time away from work as part of the treatment plan. Clinical involvement early in the claim process is critical.
A successful employer program should include critical incident response as well as ongoing guidance and counseling. Critical incident response gives the employee a chance to express feelings or reduce stress and gives management an opportunity to show concern for colleagues, both of which can help the employee re-acclimate when they return to work.
There are many work accommodation considerations to take into account for employees suffering from PTSD. Modifying specific environments that trigger memories of the original stressor can be very helpful. For example, an employee who was present for an armed robbery could be transferred to a different location, if possible. Allowing work-at-home or flexible scheduling opportunities can also be effective, to allow the employee ample time for ongoing mental health treatment. There are an extraordinary number of other possible accommodations that may be needed, addressing alertness/concentration, decreased stamina, memory loss and stress intolerance. If an employer is committed to safely reintroducing the employee into the work environment, they will need a clear and actionable plan.