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Walls: Addressing PTSD in the Workplace

  • National

The occurrence of school shootings, store robberies and job-related fatalities have all contributed to the increase in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the workplace. A session at the recent RIMS 2019 Annual Conference and Exhibition discussed the need to address the issue on a broader basis.

Mark Walls

Mark Walls

Speakers included Dr. Teresa Bartlett, senior vice president, medical quality, Sedgwick;
Denise Algire, director, risk initiatives, and national medical director, Albertsons;
and Dr. Steve Wiesner, on-the-job medical director, workers’ compensation service, Kaiser Permanente.

PTSD is a complex disorder that affects the memory and emotional responses of a person who has experienced or witnessed an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. The worse the trauma, the more likely it is that a person will develop PTSD, and the worse the symptoms.

The most severely affected patients are unable to work, have trouble with relationships and have great difficulty parenting their children.

Magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography scans show changes in the way memories are stored in the brain for patients who suffer from PTSD. The disorder actually changes the portions of the brain that regulate the fight-or-flight response, and the area where memories are coded and stored.

Symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, increased anxiety and avoidance/numbing. Prognosis depends on the patient’s health prior to developing the disorder but is improved with early treatment, preferably within the first 12 months.

Patients with PTSD are more likely to have amplified pain and stress reactivity when they are injured, leading to longer-tail claims.

Major life-threatening events that can lead to PTSD: combat or military exposure; sexual or physical assault; childhood sexual or physical abuse; serious accidents, such as a car wreck; terrorist attacks; and natural disasters such as fire, tornado, hurricane, flood or earthquake.

When PTSD occurs in the workplace, an employer’s program should address early intervention, specific functional limitations, treatment consistent with care, and time away from work as part of the treatment plan. Clinical involvement early in the claim process is critical.

A successful employer program should include critical incident response as well as continuing guidance and counseling. Critical incident response gives the employee a chance to express feelings or reduce stress and gives management an opportunity to show concern for colleagues, both of which can help the employee reacclimate when returning to work.

There are many work accommodation considerations to take into account for employees suffering from PTSD. Modifying specific environments that trigger memories of the original stressor can be very helpful. For example, an employee who was present for an armed robbery could be transferred to a different location, if possible.

Allowing work-at-home or flexible scheduling opportunities can also be effective, to allow the employee ample time for mental health treatment.

There are an extraordinary number of other possible accommodations that may be needed, addressing alertness/concentration, decreased stamina, memory loss and stress intolerance.

If an employer is committed to safely reintroducing the employee into the work environment, the employer will need a clear and actionable plan.

Mark Walls is vice president of communications and strategic analysis at Safety National. This blog post is reprinted by permission from InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com.

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