PTSD in the Workplace

Thomas Harpley, Ph.D.

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When most people think of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), they think of combat veterans running for cover during thunderstorms. In reality, combat veterans only account for a fraction of those who experience PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that as much as 14% of the general population may experience PTSD during their lifetime.

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Do you think PTSD is irrelevant in your workplace?

The U.S. Dept. of Justice just revealed that one out of six violent crimes occurs in the workplace.

Approximately twenty four million workers, or nearly one out of every four U.S. employees, were threatened, harassed, or attacked on the job, during 1992.

Homicide is the second leading cause of death in the workplace, and the number one cause of death on the job for women.

The essential feature of PTSD is distress or impairment after experiencing a traumatic stressor. Such a stressor might include a person experiencing, witnessing, or confronting an event that involves:

a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others
the actual serious injury or death of others.

As people, we are all made up of three primary psychological components:

the cognitive - what we think;
the emotional - what we feel; and,
the behavioral - what we do.

Most people's jobs involve thoughts and actions, and relatively speaking, little feelings or emotions.But when a trauma or crisis occurs, our feelings are thrust to the forefront, and our thoughts and actions become impaired. Common posttraumatic stress reactions include impairment of attention, concentration, and memory.

Trauma victims, for example, may have great difficulty paying attention or concentrating on even the most familiar or simple of tasks. For this reason, they may be at risk operating machinery, or driving an automobile, for a period of time after a traumatic event. They may also be unable to remember information which previously had been "second nature" to them.

Trauma victims may also feel a sense of detachment or estrangement from others, especially those "who were not there, and can't know what it was like". This sense of detachment may translate into lessened interest or participation in significant activities, personally or vocationally.

A word of caution to loved ones of trauma victims: be careful about inflicting "secondary injury" on the trauma victim. "Secondary injury", like the name implies, is an additional injury, after-the-fact, most often caused unintentionally and unknowingly, by insensitive or critical comments from others, who "were not there and (who) cannot know what it was really like".

What to do about PTSD? Two responses, one on an individual level, the other on a corporate level. First, realize that posttraumatic stress reactions are NORMAL reactions to abnormal events, it is not the person who is abnormal. Second, research has shown that people who talk about traumas tend to recover more quickly and completely, than do others who do not talk. So, talking to friends or family, or especially to professional counselors who are trained to help people process feelings, can be most beneficial.

On a corporate level, it is important for employers or organizations have a trauma response plan intact beforehand, rather than trying to respond, perhaps literally, "amidst the smoke and ashes". Research has shown that a prompt and efficient response to trauma can mitigate the employees' emotional distress, work interruption, and possible corporate liability.

5/26/98

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Thomas D. Harpley, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, who specializes in treating PTSD. Dr. Harpley is also the founder and clinical director of National Trauma Services, which specializes in consulting with businesses and organizations regarding the prevention of, and response to, workplace violence. Dr. Harpley is the author of two training programs: Defusing Workplace Violence, focusing on both prevention and response to workplace violence; and just published, First Response: A Team Approach to Workplace Trauma. For further information, call Dr. Harpley at (619) 296-2811 or (800)398-2811.

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