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Post-traumatic stress disorder in the workplace

Celéste Olivier
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People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often relate to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme as it expresses just how they're feeling: shattered, wounded, torn apart and unlikely ever to be put back together again. PTSD results from exposure to an overwhelmingly stressful event or series of events, and can be caused by a wide range of trials such as: war, abuse, violent crime or natural disasters. To understand PTSD and how you can help one of your employees who might be suffering from the disease, you must first understand 'trauma'.

Life doesn't prepare us for trauma and when faced with a traumatic experience, people can expect to struggle with difficult emotions, terrifying memories or a fear of constant danger. Some people may feel numb, disconnected or unable to trust others. When bad things happen, it can take time to deal with the pain and to begin to feel safe again.

After a traumatic experience, the mind and body are in shock. But as people make sense of what happened and process their emotions, they're able to deal with the event. However, with PTSD the individual remains in a state of psychological shock. The memory of the events that took place, and the feelings associated with it, are disconnected.

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms usually begin within three months of a trauma although there can be a delayed onset. In some cases, years can pass before symptoms appear. In this case, the symptoms are often triggered by the anniversary of the trauma or with the experience of another traumatic event. Symptoms may vary in frequency and intensity over time.

While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three common symptoms:

1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event:

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event,
  • Flashbacks, and
  • Nightmares.

2. Avoidance and numbing:

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts or feelings that remind one of the trauma,
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma, and
  • Feeling detached and emotionally numb.

3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep,
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger,
  • Difficulty concentrating, and
  • Hyper-vigilance.

PTSD can affect many aspects of an individual's life. Within the work environment, PTSD can manifest itself in various ways. It can be triggered or exacerbated by the work setting. Examples of problems associated with the workplace for those who have PTSD include the following:

  • Memory problems,
  • Poor interactions with co-workers,
  • Lack of concentration,
  • Unreasonable reactions to situations that triggers memories,
  • Difficulty retaining information,
  • Absenteeism,
  • Feelings of fear or anxiety,
  • Interruptions if the employee is still in an abusive relationship,
  • Physical problems,
  • Trouble staying awake, and
  • Panic attacks,

How can PTSD manifest in the work environment?

Employees suffering from PTSD will not simply be able to pull themselves together and continue with their normal tasks. So to support the employee within the work environment, it might be necessary to accommodate him, within reason. You can help by doing the following:

  • Listening to the employee's limitations related to their job performance. For example, if a female employee was raped at night and fears walking alone, she may request to have someone walk her to her car at night or even ask not to work after dark.
  • Identify what specific task may be challenging. At times, PTSD symptoms may manifest themselves in cognitive challenges. An employee may need more time to finish a task or need an office with fewer distractions.
  • Identify specifically how you can assist. The best way to find out how to assist someone is to ask.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the environment and the employee. If there are periods in which the employee is having a hard time or their tasks are not up to standard, speak directly to him about how you can assist. Providing gentle and immediate feedback will allow the employee to determine what is needed to get the task back up to standard. This is not to say that all substandard work is because of PTSD symptoms, but it is helpful to know the origins of the problem.
  • Provide training for co-workers and supervisors. By providing training on PTSD and related symptoms, the other staff members can also be educated on how to help the individual. Sensitivity training may be needed on topics that are related to PTSD.

By understanding PTSD and by proactively helping affected employees, you can provide valued help and assistance.


Celéste Olivier is the EAP manager at Kaelo Consulting. She has a BA in social work from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in occupational social work from the University of the Witwatersrand.


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