As we close out June – and a month many practitioners such as ourselves dedicate to raising awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – it’s worth noting that workplace violence affects more than half of U.S. organizations, according to a 2012 study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. My sense is that incident reporting has probably improved since then, and the figures likely even higher. The study also determined that 70 percent of organizations have no or insufficient programs and policies in place to combat it.

Our experience has shown that most serious and violent incidents in the workplace occur because the organization lacks the cultural awareness and processes among general staff and professionals – such as HR or security managers – to recognize warning signs that, left unchecked, could escalate into harm for co-workers and the individual committing the violence.

It’s critical to discuss PTSD in the context of a caring, safe and secure work environment, and how treating those with PTSD as victims can help dispel misconceptions and mitigate any potential threats. An individual suffering from the disorder may very well experience no violent tendencies but still find it difficult, if not impossible, to function in a traditional workplace setting. At Hillard Heintze, our assessments and programs take these nuances into consideration when determining how to best serve the individual and their employer.

There is no “profile” for those who suffer from PTSD

A persistent myth is the correlation between PTSD and exclusively traumatic events in war, particularly abroad. In fact, PTSD was once simply called “shell shock,” or battle fatigue syndrome. However, in reality, it is a serious condition that can develop after any person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. Families of victims can also develop PTSD, as can emergency personnel and rescue workers. It is caused by intense fear, helplessness or horror, which can develop in a variety of scenarios, including sexual or physical assault, an accident, natural disaster, the unexpected death of a loved one, or, of course, experiences in war.

Many who experience a traumatic event may react to a triggering experience with shock, anger, nervousness, fear and even guilt. These reactions are common, and for most people, they go away over time. However, an individual suffering from PTSD will experience these reactions continuously — usually for longer than a month. Such episodes can increase in intensity, becoming so strong they can prevent a person from living a normal life. These reactions are called “arousal symptoms.” Many find it hard to focus. They may sense danger and feel under attack. They may experience sleeplessness and nightmares and undergo dramatic mood changes. They may even develop collateral illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, which come with their own arrays of symptoms, including hopelessness, numbness and even thoughts of suicide.

That said, it is also important to note that PTSD doesn’t always come with clues such as nightmares and flashbacks, or emerge in consistently visible ways. Sometimes, moments seemingly unrelated to the traumatic event will conjure negativity and disrupt an individual’s daily activities.

How we use assessments to get individuals the help they need

Warning signs do not necessarily mean an individual with PTSD is dangerous. Perceivable arousal symptoms and other reactions may cause concern and anxious sentiments in the workplace, but the threat may be more to the suffering individual, rather than to those around them. As I have stated many times in previous blogs, attention to the individual’s motives, attack-related behaviors and the familial, social and community-based systems with which they are involved are key to assessing and managing a potential threat and determining what actions need to be taken.

Almost on a daily basis, we get people the care and attention they need in an effort to make the workplace safer. We constantly look for a “trusted source” or responsible adult in the person’s life to ensure we are getting the real-time information needed to support our assessment and case management. PTSD is no exception to our approach. Organizations like the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder similarly empower PTSD sufferers to engage with those they trust and their surrounding systems — like a family doctor, a close friend, clergy member and so on — to help sort out their emotions and bring more stability to their own lives first and then to those of others, particularly coworkers with whom they spend a considerable amount of time and share a space.

Talk to someone you trust

After experiencing a traumatic event, expect to think, act and feel differently than usual. Most people will start to feel better after a few weeks. If your symptoms last longer than a few months, are very upsetting and disrupt your daily life, you should get help. Whether or not you have PTSD, treatment can help if thoughts and feelings from the trauma are bothering you.

Talk to:

  • Your family doctor
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist
  • Your local VA facility or Vet Center, if you are a veteran
  • A close friend or family member who can support you while finding help
  • A clergy member
  • Someone who can help you fill out a PTSD questionnaire or screening

When an individual who may suffer from PTSD does demonstrate behavior that could lead to violence in the workplace or elsewhere, we collaborate with the same systems to neutralize and redirect a concerning employee. For example, we constantly leverage our relationships with police, correctional officials, mental health and social services organizations, religious organizations, community organizations, and family and friends. Our goal is to protect those in the workplace – but also to get the individual any assistance they may need.

Let’s make an effort to recognize that people with PTSD are victims. Most are not violent offenders. In many instances, they have protected our country from harm’s way, experienced a tragedy or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our greater awareness of their plight will not only make our world safer, but also hasten aid to those in need of our help.