What is PTSD?

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Health Assured team

19 December 2019

Trauma can occur at any time and to anyone.

In a majority of cases, when an individual experiences a traumatic event, the event goes on to affect their mental health. Nevertheless, with time and care, they’re likely to get better and move on with their lives.

However, what happens if they’re unable to move on? When they can’t stop reliving the event? Or when the trauma starts to affect their everyday functioning?

Health Assured offers a range of critical incident support services, including pre-incident support, acute crisis intervention and post-incident support. For immediate advice on how we help businesses, contact us today on 0844 892 2493.

This piece focuses on PTSD in the workplace. In it, we’ll highlight the causes and symptoms of PTSD and explore some options for supporting employees after a traumatic event.


What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

It’s defined as an anxiety disorder developed after being involved in or witnessing a stressful, frightening or distressing traumatic event.

An individual can develop PTSD immediately following a traumatic event or after a few months of the event occurring and while it’s possible to recover from it, it’ll require regular counselling from an experienced professional.

While originally recognised in those returning from combat (“shell shock”), over time mental health professionals discovered a wide range of traumatic life experiences could cause PTSD.

It’s worth noting, not everyone that experiences a traumatic event ends up getting PTSD. Experts believe with time their brain comes to terms with the memory so it’s not as vivid.


What causes PTSD?

Medical experts believe that during a traumatic event, the brain gets overwhelmed and places memories in the “immediate action” part of the brain instead of the normal place (hippocampus).

It varies from person to person but normally involves harmful or life-threatening events such as:

  • Being involved in a car crash
  • Seeing someone hurt or killed
  • Being bullied, abused or harassed
  • Experiencing extreme violence or war
  • Surviving a terrorist attack or natural disaster
  • Being violently attacked, raped, sexually assaulted, kidnapped or held hostage
  • Doing a job where you often see distressing images or hear about traumatic events
  • Having traumatic childbirth, either as a mother or as a partner witnessing the birth

This is in no way an extensive list, PTSD may be caused by any event that makes an individual fear for their lives.


Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms

Symptoms can vary depending on the individual experiencing it. Even when an individual experiences the same traumatic event as another person, the symptoms displayed may differ.

However, PTSD symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Rapid breathing
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • A pounding heartbeat
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of intense stress
  • Traumatic flashback episodes


What is complex PTSD?

This is a new term, complex PTSD (or C-PTSD or CPTSD) is a condition where individuals experience the symptoms of PTSD (highlighted above) as well as some additional ones. It’s normally associated with people who’re in repeated traumatic situations such as neglect or abuse and may not develop until years after the initial event.

Examples of these symptoms include:

  • Regular suicidal feelings
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Feeling very different from other people
  • Feeling permanently damaged or worthless
  • Constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • Feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you
  • Feeling hostile or distrustful towards everything and everyone
  • Avoiding friendships and relationships, or difficulty maintaining them
  • Experiencing dissociative symptoms such as depersonalisation or derealisation


Is PTSD a mental illness?

Yes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental illness as one that’s characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions and behaviours.


Is PTSD a disability?

For employers wondering if PTSD is a disability in the UK, the simple answer is yes.

A more complicated answer is that it depends on the effects on the sufferer. Generally, sufferers are protected by the Equality Act 2010 but only if their condition has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

Under this legislation, a mental condition is considered a disability if it’s “long-term” and affects an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

It defines “long-term” as lasting or likely to last 12 months and ‘normal day-to-day activities’ as something you’d do to regularly in a normal day such as using a computer, interacting with people or working set times.

For more information on what classes as a disability, check out the government’s guide on matters to be taken into account in determining questions relating to the definition of disability according to the Equality Act 2010.


Is post-traumatic stress disorder permanent?

While various experts have indicated there’s no cure for PTSD, several treatments have been shown to decrease its symptoms and improve the lives of sufferers.

An article on Psychology Today identifies Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as an effective treatment for reducing the symptoms of PTSD. With this form of therapy, sufferers can learn to manage their fears and anxiety following a traumatic event.

Other forms of treatment to consider include:

  • Watchful waiting to monitor symptoms to see if it improves or gets worse without treatment
  • Relaxation therapy to reduce stress
  • Antidepressants to treat depression, OCD, generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD.
  • In vivo exposure therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders
  • Psychoeducation to educate and provide information and support to gain a better understanding of various mental conditions
  • Cognitive restructuring as part of CBT to identify and change the negative thoughts that contribute to developing depression


Where to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder?

Certain levels of upset, frustration and anxiety are normal following a traumatic event. However, this should improve on its own after a few weeks.

However, if problems persist up to four weeks after the traumatic event, the first step on the route to recovery is to speak to a GP.

There they’ll carry out assessments and, if needed, they’ll refer the individual to a mental health specialist for further assessment and treatment.


How to deal with PTSD at work

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that those suffering from this disorder may show certain symptoms while at work. Common work-related PTSD symptoms include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Increased absences
  • Reduced productivity
  • Lack of concentration
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Inability to maintain a functioning relationship with co-workers
  • Erratic reaction when certain situations trigger the memory of a traumatic event

As well as recognising how PTSD effects work, it’s important to know how to deal with someone having a PTSD episode. The support you provide may vary depending on the sufferer so it’s essential to remain flexible.

By creating an environment of support and tolerance, you can help to ensure your employees remain healthy and productive.

Consider the following approaches to resolve issues that might arise from the symptoms:

Communication: Good communication is the key to managing an employee with PTSD. Talk to your staff about their needs. Ask how you and other team members can support them. It’s important to be patient and listen when they want to talk. Remember that sometimes talking about worries and concerns can be therapeutic.

Reasonable adjustments: Find out what changes you make in the workplace to help improve their work environment. Changes should address some of the symptoms that may arise, for example, offer a quiet work area to resolve issues of concentration or allow staff to wear noise-cancelling headphones.

Minimise Stresses: It’s important to take steps to remove anything they’d consider a ‘trigger’ in the workplace. You should also consider restructuring their roles or lighting workloads to reduce pressure. Consider allowing time off for counselling sessions either through your employee assistance programme or independently.

Team training: It’s also important to raise awareness for PTSD and its symptoms among other staff to help reduce the stigma associated with ill mental health. As well as teaching them to better understand the disorder and identify its symptoms, it also encourages them to work better with their colleague suffering from the PTSD.

Can workplace bullying cause PTSD?

It’s not uncommon for some employees to develop PTSD from work.

An employee can get PTSD from bullying at work. When harassment is constant and remains unaddressed, it creates various health issues including sleeplessness, headaches, anxiety and panic attacks, all of which contribute to developing PTSD.

Your staff can make claims for compensation for PTSD at work when you put them at risk by not following health and safety guidelines. Providing the incident happened in the workplace in the last three years and they can prove that you put them at risk by failing in your duty to protect them.


Expert advice

To find out more about how Health Assured’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) services can benefit your business, get in touch with our dedicated team today on 0844 892 2493.

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