It is your business's first day reopening after months under movement and socialization restrictions due to COVID-19. As you enter the door for the office, you see familiar faces. There are unexpressed desires to shake hands or hug. Some people talk in elevated, animated voices, while others are subdued, with eyes nervously darting across the room as if looking for threats.
As we work towards dusting ourselves off and restarting after spending months in a suspended reality, you may recognize some signs of trauma in your team members, and even in yourself.
People around the globe have been and will continue to be in a stressful situation due to the pandemic. For most, life changed fundamentally overnight. Many are trying to work from home while caring for children and are experiencing increased stress and anxiety now that some children are returning to out of home care. Millions have found themselves laid off from their jobs and may be worried about how they’ll pay their bills. Others wait to hear if their jobs will survive until the economy recovers.
In addition, people are getting a lot of contradictory information about the virus and the measures needed to combat it, as anyone who has a question about masks will attest. With all these stressors in mind, it is no wonder that the impact of COVID-19 on everyday life can lead to increased uncertainty, extreme fear, and, even, the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is caused by witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence. Being affected by these types of events is normal, however if the thoughts or memories of these events start to seriously impact the person’s life long after the event, they could be experiencing PTSD.
As a concerned leader, you may be wondering how to understand and recognize signs of PTSD resulting from the pandemic, and how to constructively support them.
Identifying PTSD at Work
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types:
- Intrusive memories
- Negative changes in thinking and mood
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions.
Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.
While every individual will react and cope differently in reaction to traumatic events, there are some common identified examples of how PTSD may manifest at work, including: Difficulty remembering or concentrating, recurring thoughts, ‘flashbacks’ or nightmares about the event or situation; difficulty retaining information; and difficulty managing time or completing tasks. The DSM-5 has a complete list of diagnostic criteria.
Suffering from PTSD can be very painful and frustrating. As a team leader, there are actions that we can take to support someone working through their issues, and resources available to provide employees with the professional expertise that you do not have. First responders and their supportive organizations have battled this disorder for years and through them we learn that there are three steps to organizations establishing a PTSD Prevention Plan and Program:
- Getting Started
- Taking Proactive Steps
- Implementing Best Practices.
In the beginning, an organization in reactive state with regards to addressing PTSD may need help understanding their legal requirements. There’s a focus on building awareness and reducing stigma, developing policies, defining roles and responsibilities.
Organizations that have foundational elements in place in one or more of the focus areas are taking the steps necessary to put protection in place for their employees. This is the point at which the organization is ready to move from a reactive state to a more proactive state. The organization can now recognize signs and symptoms of PTSD, having addressed the issue of stigma towards workers who suffer from it. At this phase, the organization knows how to help prevent a worker from developing PTSD but they also know how to help a worker recover and return to work.
As mentioned above, there are three focus areas related to preventing and managing PTSD in the workplace:
- Intervention and
- Recovery / Return to Work.
The prevention area outlines the basic elements of occupational health and safety management such as understanding legal responsibilities, recognizing, assessing and controlling the hazard, developing policies and procedures, outlining roles and responsibilities and incident reporting/record keeping procedures in an organization. The goal is to integrate PTSD prevention practices for the promotion of a healthy and safe workplace that actively works to prevent harm to a worker’s mental health.
During Intervention, the focus is on outlining actions that can be taken to improve a situation. This includes ensuring that workers know how to report psychological injuries when they occur and are supported in doing so. It also highlights intervention options that are evidence based and that can be utilized in organizations.
The purpose of this focus area is to ensure that managers understand how to accommodate a worker who is suffering from PTSD and that there are clearly established roles and responsibilities for supporting workers through this process. Recovery and Return to Work is the third pillar and is an important aspect of preventing future or further injury.
What We Can Do to Assist Employees Struggling with PTSD
There are a number of actions that we as leaders can take that will assist our teams in managing what comes at them on a daily basis:
- Develop policies and procedures: Policies and procedures related to addressing PTSD should align with any existing mental health and wellness program elements and the organizational values. Policies may include: Organizational PTSD Policy and Anti-Stigma Policy and Procedure.
- Roles and responsibilities: Reviewing and refining job description documentation to create accountability for workplace mental health. We all play a role in ensuring that mental health is a priority within our workplace.
- Review existing health and safety training and support tools: This should consider Management Training, Employee Engagement, Anti‐stigma Awareness, Communication Strategies, Civility and Respect, Critical Incident Response and Management and/or peer support, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or other benefits that support a mental health and wellness program.
Understanding the Strengths and Limitations of your Employee Assistance Program
An important aspect of developing your response and prevention plan is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your organization’s EAP. It is important that leaders designing an EAP understand the service’s strengths and limitations so that any gaps in the prevention plan can be addressed.
Some of the items that can be confirmed with an EAP provider include:
- How does the EAP provider screen calls, and are they equipped to provide service in the area of PTSD support?
- How many hours of counselling can an receive and is there an increased amount of hours available for PTSD cases?
- What qualifications do available counsellors have to address PTSD symptoms?
- What knowledge and experience or training has been provided by the counsellors with regards to identifying signs and symptoms of PTSD?
- Is the service available 24/7?
- What type of assistance is available to help managers effectively manage a critical incident?
- Does the provider provide training for managers on how to identify an employee in crisis, and is this included in the EAP plan? If it is not included, can we pay for it as needed?
- Does the provider provide peer support training or training for peer support mentors, and is this included in the package, or can you pay for this as needed?
Once you understand the strengths and limitations of your Employee Assistance Program, you will be able to identify the next steps you need to take to provide additional support to your workers. Couple that with strong communication to your employees on the strengths and limitations of the EAP so that they are aware of the services and/or processes in order to effectively utilize this support resource. When a prevention and support plan is put into effect, it provides members of our team with the network of support required to ensure that they do not slip between the cracks, and so we can all greet tomorrow from a united and resilient front.