With thousands of soldiers from the National Guard and Reserves returning to work after deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan – and thousands of Gulf Coast residents recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina – American employers will need to be on the lookout for the effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Facing life-threatening situations like combat, natural disasters, or a violent crime can have a long-term impact on a person’s mental health. Many people suffering from PTSD turn to alcohol to manage their symptoms.
According to the National Center for PTSD (part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), people with PTSD relive their traumatic experience through nightmares and flashbacks, feel detached or estranged, and have difficulty sleeping. These symptoms can lead to problems with relationships, difficulties at work, depression, and problems with drugs and alcohol.
The National Comorbidity Survey found that almost 8 percent of Americans will suffer from PTSD in their lifetimes. There is a clear difference in risk based on gender. Women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD – for the most part because women are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes like rape, sexual abuse and family violence.
But the risk of acquiring PTSD is much greater for particular groups. A recent study by Charles W. Hoge, MD, (published in the New England Journal of Medicine) found that nearly 20 percent of returning Iraq War veterans experienced PTSD symptoms. Some studies have found that more than 50 percent of domestic violence victims suffer from the effects of PTSD. And for severe disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 or the Murrah Federal Building bombing, nearly 70 percent of victims may suffer from PTSD symptoms.
One of the biggest challenges with PTSD is diagnosing the problem before it becomes too severe. According to the National Mental Health Association, the steps to help returning veterans and disaster victims are:
- Create a welcoming environment: Prior to the employee’s return, meet with her colleagues to discuss any concerns they have about the impact on their responsibilities. Encourage everyone to be supportive as their colleague readjusts. Consider organizing a welcoming event, such as a breakfast or cake break.
- Update the employee: As soon as possible, meet with the employee to update her about the status of the workload, policy and personnel changes, and any other changes that occurred during the absence.
- Give the employee time to readjust: Be aware that some people may need a little time to get back into the swing of their former routine. Encourage them to ask for the guidance or support they need.
- Support the employee if transition proves difficult: If an employee is having significant trouble readjusting to the workplace, talk about performance expectations and listen to the employee’s concerns. If you think there are personal issues, including anxiety or depression, related to the transition, suggest that the employee seek consultation from your organization’s employee assistance program or a mental health professional.
For more information about PTSD, returning employees and alcohol issues, check out the following resources:
The National Center for PTSD provides a wide range of information about PTSD.
The National Partnership for Workplace Mental Health operates the Center for the Study of Posttraumatic Stress and offers fact sheets with guidance for helping returning war veterans and disaster survivors.
The National Mental Health Association has a tip sheet for returning veterans and their employers.