While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.
PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.
(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)
Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.
The ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.
Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.
Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and frightened thoughts, often triggered by a sound, smell, sight or other reminder of a traumatic event, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People struggling with PTSD will attempt to avoid people, places, events, and even thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma. They may become tense, easily startled and subject to angry outbursts or numbed reactions. They often blame themselves, become consumed by negative feelings and lose interest in previously enjoyed activities.
As a manager, you don’t need to know an employee’s diagnosis to aid their recovery. Consider the following actions:
- Make sure the employee knows about Employee Assistance Program options at your organization.
- If the employee alerts you to their struggle, help them find a peer support group. Many whose traumas turn into PTSD blame themselves for the events that happened to them, and/or for their reactions. Peer support groups are excellent outlets for rewiring thought processes to more reasoned perspectives.
- If you’re aware of an employee’s struggles, ask them to alert you to triggers. Can you modify their work environment to reduce exposure to certain sounds, smells or experiences? If they were attacked from behind, can you reorient their workspace or cubicle so people don’t greet them from behind? Can you assign the employee to work that doesn’t involve frequent exposure to loud sounds if explosions are a trigger?
- Consider making deep breathing exercises, mindfulness or meditation moments part of team-building activities. Such exercises help PTSD and other anxiety disorder sufferers cope.
- Support your employee’s efforts to make physical changes, including improving sleep, exercise and diet habits. These physical changes can produce the brain chemistry needed for the employee to have the internal energy to think through and cope with their traumas.
- Be there when your employee needs support. Research shows that employees with good social support networks recover more quickly from PTSD.
- Support an employee’s effort to avoid exposure to alcohol. Substance abuse exacerbates PTSD coping difficulties.
Leader/managers can help reduce the length and severity of PTSD symptoms. If you believe you have an employee struggling with PTSD, learn how you can help.
Whatever else you do, don’t create unnecessary, repetitive traumas that could trigger PTSD or other anxiety disorders. Workplace bullying, including long-term derogatory treatment by managers, can lead to PTSD.
After one acquisition I endured during my corporate career, an executive sent to take control told our senior management forum that, “I love America. It’s so easy to fire people here.” Over the next few years, he and another colleague tormented dozens of previously successful executives. Fortunate ones were let go without any clear rationale to those who remained. A few were fired in angry outbursts, only to have their firings rescinded. Many endured public ridicule and scorn from these executives.
Over time, the fear, uncertainty and arbitrariness of many actions created a deep tension among those who encountered these executives. Many went out of their way to avoid contact, unleashed angry outbursts on their own teams, suffered from severe insomnia and otherwise acted in manners certainly consistent with at least an anxiety disorder and, quite possibly, PTSD.
The conditions were so tense and widespread that when three private equity firms bought our company, they were perplexed at being greeted by a standing ovation. Even knowing that cost cutting is part of the private equity playbook, headquarters employees were relieved.
Still, a year after these executives were let go, many who had worked closely with these senior leaders struggled to escape the numb, edgy, avoidance behaviors and unwind the pattern of incendiary reactions that had accompanied their continuous stress.
When it comes to PTSD or other anxiety disorders, it’s possible to be part of someone’s problem. If you’re reading this article, though, it’s far more likely you’re interested in being part of someone’s solution. Thank you for caring.