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Why employees returning to the office may show signs of PTSD

Employees may fear their health is at risk, and/or may be dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one to COVID-19.

Why employees returning to the office may show signs of PTSD
Tima Miroshnichen /Pexels]
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When you think about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, you probably connect it to soldiers who were in combat or victims of horrific crimes. But the symptoms can actually plague anyone who’s gone through a stressful situation. And as employees start returning to the workplace, some may show signs of PTSD.

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“PTSD is tied to an event of trauma,” says Keita Franklin, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at the workforce solution provider Loyal Source. “It’s a fear of trauma and the potential for re-experiencing trauma. Our service members deal with it when they’re downrange and deployed; their survival is at risk. When it comes to returning to work, some people may fear that their health is at risk and their own sense of survival is threatened.”

Employees may also have had traumatic experiences during the pandemic, says Franklin, who specializes in PTSD and has worked in behavioral health for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs. “Many of them may have been caretakers for people that had COVID-19, and many may have lost parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and neighbors,” she says. “They’ll be returning to the office having been through something, and they’ll have to adjust to a new normal.”

The isolation of the pandemic hasn’t helped, adds Franklin. “We’re social beings and being around people is good, necessary, and helpful,” she says. “Going back will be a bumpy adjustment.”

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A lot of people have remained in a state of anxiety during the pandemic, says Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., chief knowledge officer and cofounder of meQuilibrium, an employee resilience solution. “People are not returning to the worksite as they were,” he says. “They are apprehensive, weary, and emotionally worn down. The anxiety that began with the pandemic won’t magically disappear once workers are vaccinated and back in the office.”

Spotting Employees at Risk

Companies that are mandating a return to the office must teach leaders how to recognize the risks and how to help their employees. “This isn’t a training you do once a year for 30 minutes and think all will be well,” says Franklin. “You have to infuse it into the fabric of the organization, talking about it in small groups and role modeling wellness.”

If an employee at work is suffering from PTSD, you may notice them being irritable or having angry outbursts, says Jerry O’Keefe, the national director of the employee assistance program at healthcare service provider Kaiser Permanente. “They may be easily startled or have trouble concentrating, or they may lose interest in projects they used to like,” he says. “They may call in sick more often, or not show up to work without telling anyone.”

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People who experienced grief may also suffer from PTSD, adds O’Keefe. “They may feel overwhelming guilt or survivor’s guilt, feel sad and suffer from depression,” he says. “The pandemic has also left people feeling disenfranchised, which is the perception that if I’m not grieving about COVID-19 sickness or death, it’s not a valid reason to be grieving.”

While PTSD is a medical condition, Franklin says you can have a few of the symptoms and not meet the full diagnosis. “You could be chronically living with a few symptoms over time,” she says, likening it to a stoplight. “It’s basically people in the yellow; they’re not in the green, and they’re not in the red. They’re just getting by. Coming to work can be a protective factor because it can give them a sense of purpose, mission, and feeling of belongingness. This can go a long way.”

Helping Employees Cope

Employers, HR professionals, and managers can address mental health in the workplace by instilling resilience in people and organizations as it is an effective first line of defense, says Shatté.

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“It is projected that 20% of workers will suffer from PTSD due to the trauma of the pandemic,” he says. “The question is no longer why or whether we need to be resilient, but how to build resilience in the workplace. Organizations that provide their people with wellbeing support and the skills of resilience will find themselves on the right side of history.”

Have a strong communication strategy about the safety measures the organization is taking. “It could be having a mass policy on vaccines, new cleaning protocols, bottled water instead of a water cooler, or re-spacing of desks,” says Franklin. “Tell employees, ‘This is what we’re doing. What else do you need?'”

O’Keefe says a place for healing requires psychological and physical safety. Staff members should feel valued, respected, and comfortable to speak up about their needs, as well as have control over their work and environment.

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“Remind employees about policies that are intended to keep them physically safe and healthy,” he says. “One study found that employees who were able to consistently practice physical distancing at work had a significantly lower risk of anxiety or depression.”

COVID-19 has given a new perspective on the old advice of putting your own mask on first before you help others. Franklin encourages managers to let people know it’s okay if you’re not okay. “This is all a new normal for us and we’re in it together,” she says. “We can help each other get through it.”

For example, leaders should share their own self-care activities like, such as shutting down for an hour or two during the day and taking paid time off.

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“Get smart on the signs and symptoms, but then live it and breathe it in a way that makes people comfortable coming forward and asking for help,” she says. “Managers should be setting the stage and telling people, ‘We don’t expect you to be 100% when we come back. We recognize that many of you experienced great loss during COVID-19 and coming back to work isn’t going to be easy for any of us.’ This helps them know they’re not the only one who may be struggling.”