Understanding and addressing PTSD in the workplace


In recognition of PTSD awareness month, it is critical to acknowledge and educate others on the struggles, and ultimately the resiliencies, of employees suffering from PTSD in the workplace.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by the resulting trauma of either living through, or witnessing, a traumatic event — such as violence, abuse, a natural disaster or a car accident. When these events occur within the workplace, it can cause an association between work and the traumatic instance. This can lead to fear, nervousness, anxiety, and for some, PTSD when returning to work.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. The development of PTSD is often linked to the ways in which an individual’s brain processes and attaches significance to the trauma, which can lead to fear of the event recurring or a repeated reliving of it. For those who do develop PTSD, symptoms commonly emerge within three months of the traumatic event — however, in some cases, symptoms may not appear until years later.

A Careworks case study

Consider the story of Kristin, a 50-year-old ER nurse, who was attacked by a patient during an emergency psychiatric consultation. The patient gouged Kristin’s eyes with his keys and struck her multiple times in the head before other staff members could intervene and restrain the patient. After recovering from her physical injuries, Kristin’s treatment provider indicated that Kristin would need psychological treatment due to her experiencing flashbacks to the incident, panic attacks, and difficulty sleeping. She had been recently diagnosed with PTSD. The claims examiner referred Kristin to Careworks’ behavioral health services (BHS).

Our BHS specialist spoke with Kristin at length to help her feel comfortable with the idea of seeking professional help. The specialist then screened appropriate psychologists with expertise in treating trauma reactions and identified an expert with specific training in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements or other forms of stimulation to help the patient process and release traumatic memories. After just a few sessions of EMDR therapy, Kristin felt well enough to return to work.

The BHS specialist followed several key guidelines to ensure effective PTSD treatment was administered that would lead to positive outcomes.

Early identification

Individuals affected by PTSD have a better chance at recovering and returning to work quickly if early intervention takes place, rather than waiting for the person’s symptoms to emerge or progress. Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, hypervigilance, guilt, and negative impacts to mood or cognition.

The period between the traumatic event and the point at which symptoms emerge is crucial to an individual’s recovery timeline. When symptoms surface and go unnoticed or unreported, it can delay a patient’s recovery for months or even years, which has the potential to severely impact the individual’s work, relationships and day-to-day well-being.

There is an array of screening tools that can be utilized to identify workers with psychosocial factors consistent with PTSD. In some cases, to determine whether PTSD may become a factor in a claim, care providers can evaluate the case based on the details of the traumatic event and anticipate the need for mental health support. That way, if PTSD symptoms do begin to form, there is awareness at the onset, and patients have already begun receiving counseling and are in a safe environment to process their trauma.

Appropriate providers, effective treatment plans

It is equally important to ensure a patient receives the appropriate kind of help to manage their PTSD. Careworks’ BHS specialists ensure patients are referred to the right provider with the right experience.

Each mental health expert has their own specialties, fee schedules and insurance guidelines, which is why our team coordinates directly with care providers to match every PTSD case with a specific expert that aligns with the patient’s needs.

A multitude of treatments and protocols are available for employees who experience traumatic events, or PTSD symptoms, on the job. With the right care and expertise for their unique circumstances, patients can continue their lives and eventually reengage with society and their work.

Written by:

Mark Debus

MSW, LCSW, Clinical Manager of Behavioral Health

June 26, 2024