Three out of every four Australians will experience an event that can cause psychological trauma, according to the Productivity Commission. That’s nearly 19 million people in our country.
Of those 19 million Australians, many are part of the workforce. Whether they are soldiers, front line workers or accountants, post traumatic stress can happen at any time, especially at work.
That’s why PTSD isn’t just a personal issue, but a health and safety issue. Businesses must take a look at their procedures when it comes to not just physical injuries but mental ones too. Human Resources or People and Culture departments within a business should know how to implement a system that prevents and minimises the effects of PTSD on its workforce.
HR managers require the skills to support that person and liaise with senior management to best support an individual through their recovery and the options of a return to work – be it in their original role or another role if that person cannot return to their pre-illness duties.
With 30 years of experience in health and safety, I have seen first-hand the effects of PTSD in the workplace. I help clients with their compliance with the current legislation and enhance management systems to accommodate the legislation and best practices. Part of that best practice involves supporting an injured person back to work – be it physical or mental.
PTSD in the workplace
There are many ways that psychological hazards can appear at work.
For workers like first responders, emergency service personnel and police officers, witnessing a horrific injury or responding to a conflict can result in post-traumatic stress disorder. It could even involve a crime.
It can also take the form of cumulative exposure to bullying and harassment, stress stemming from workload and time management. It can even be associated with poor management or a grievance with a superior.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may present itself as addiction to alcohol or drugs. Individuals may mask their PTSD with a reliance on substances as a coping mechanism.
How a worker may present with PTSD
There are three main ways that a worker may have a post traumatic stress disorder identified in the workplace:
- An individual may come forward by reporting to their manager or HR department that they are experiencing a mental health condition stemming from work – such as bullying and harassment, or they aren’t feeling supported.
- An individual may have witnessed an incident that troubles them and it is reported, just like a physical injury.
- A colleague or manager may detect an individual’s behaviour has changed and report it to a human resources department.
Preventing workplace injuries starts with awareness and education. Before an injury takes place, a business must put in place robust and comprehensive systems and procedures to prevent workplace injuries in the first place.
Part of this might involve educational programs of HR departments and workshops to highlight what issues and hazards may occur and how to control those hazards.
Mental health conditions must be treated with sensitivity and that is where education plays an important role. The skills an HR manager should possess include:
- The knowledge to support a person through a PTSD diagnosis
- Understanding of the process of rehabilitation and return to work
- Understanding of the workers’ compensation process and ensuring that the individual is paid while off work
- Knowledge to liaise and communicate with workers’ compensation regulators
There is lots of training out there to better support HR managers. They are:
- The Certificate of Rehabilitation and Return-to-Work Programming
- Diploma or Cert 4 in mental health
- Seeking the support of a professional company that manages and supports mental health recovery like East Coast Safety Consultants
When prevention isn’t possible, or fails, a business must move into mitigation. There are a number of different services that can be offered by a HR manager when it comes to a diagnosis of PTSD.
In the first instance, if a company has an employee assistance program (EAP) in place, they can offer counselling services. Smaller companies may highlight other programs such as Heads Up and BeyondBlue to encourage the worker to get support.
From there, the HR manager may be able to help the employee make a claim for workers’ compensation and explain the process. If the employee does choose to leave work for a period of time, they may join a return to work rehabilitation program.
Compared to a sore back or a broken bone, a mental health injury cannot be seen. We know when we develop a return to work plan for somebody that has a sore back, we’re guided by a physician.
In the same way, when it comes to a trauma-related mental injury, we rely on physiotherapists and occupational therapists to guide a return to work program with a physical injury.
When it comes to mental health, we look to a psychologist for similar guidance. The HR manager would communicate directly with the nominated treating doctor, or with a psychiatrist or psychologist while the worker undergoes treatment. They would also liaise with a case manager from the insurer managing the workers’ compensation claim and senior leaders within the business to manage their return to work.
Why returning to work makes sense
There are many benefits of returning to work after a PTSD diagnosis. Not only do we have a moral duty to look after our workers during a difficult time, it also makes financial sense in terms of cost management and preventing liability associated with injuries.
When an injury takes place at work, it doesn’t just impact the employee, but their entire support network. Financial instability as a result of leaving the workforce may exacerbate PTSD symptoms and those that rely on the income, like children and ageing family members, may suffer too.
The benefits extend beyond financial security. Workers’ who return to work, be it in their original role or another role through upskilling, experience a strong sense of purpose.
For businesses, the benefits are huge too. An injured staff member may have been working at a business for 10 or more years and understand how that business functions. It would be a huge loss to the business to forgo the knowledge that employee holds.
PTSD left untreated
If left untreated, post traumatic stress disorder can have serious business impacts. It means there is a person in the business who is not fit for work and that could pose hazards not only to themselves but to others as well.
What’s more, productivity may be seriously impaired. How a person does or does not contribute to a team can impact others’ work too.
What HR managers need to know
HR managers play an important role in supporting a person to get back into the workplace or seek other opportunities within the organisation.
In the first instance, a manager must be supportive of a return to work process, which may involve building back up to a full time role incrementally. An education when it comes to mental injury as well as a willingness to support suitable duties is paramount.
Engaging with service providers that are supporting an employee back to work, offering education and workshops as well as mentoring and coaching when there is an issue.
A holistic approach
Hope in Health is able to offer employers of people experiencing post traumatic stress the highest level care through completely personalised treatment programs to get them back into society and work.
PTSD comes with huge challenges. Returning those struggling to a point of psychological safety takes time. Providing the right, compassionate care goes a long way to getting an individual back to work and rediscovering a sense of purpose.