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As of this writing approximately 30% of the nearly one million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war who have been treated at Veteran Administration hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. This is not counting the veterans who have neither been treated nor diagnosed. It is estimated that the total number of veterans from our war on terror with PTSD is nearly half a million.
At the same time that American employers are now pledging to hire wounded warriors in record numbers, Human Resource Professionals must ask: Is my organization ready, not just to hire these returning veterans but to train, supervise, communicate, interact with and accommodate them in the workplace? We find that American employers are now faced with a challenging dichotomy — the contrast of strongly supporting the hiring of wounded warriors and at the same time feeling unqualified and uneasy about supervising them.
It is important to remember that hiring them is not the primary goal. Hiring them and having them become successful employees who are acclimating back into civilian life is the goal. Our job doesn’t end with the photo opportunity for hiring them — it begins the day after— the first day on the job.
Training managers, supervisors and employees about wounded warriors is as important as any other of your diversity awareness programs. Successful employers are conducting wounded warrior employment training with all their supervisors, managers and employees as well as the wounded warriors themselves with great success.
But where do we start? One good place to begin is to take a common sense approach to educating your workforce about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, separating the facts from the myths, beliefs and stereotypes. We call this step the “taking the ‘D’ out of PTSD.” From this point in this article I will not use the term PTSD again. I will use the more accurate term PTS.
Professionals in the field of disability employment have long observed that supervisors and co-workers feel more comfortable and confident about working with persons who have mobility, sensory, intellectual, and physical impairments than emotional impairments. We are familiar with physical impairments. We feel we can understand being blind because we all have the experience of being in the dark. We understand missing limbs or being unable to walk or hear. These disabilities are obvious, visible to us, often stable and generally predictable. The persons who have them, have needs that are frequently obvious and common sense. There is little or no blame, nor judgment, attached to the people who have these impairments.
Emotional disabilities are neither obvious nor simply understood. There are many myths and misconceptions that surround emotional impairments. This often causes discomfort, uncertainty, and fear in the persons who work with persons who have these impairments. Post Traumatic Stress is the rule here, not the exception. The public frequently believes that Post Traumatic Stress is an unnatural overreaction to a stressful event. Too often the blame is attributed to the person with Post Traumatic Stress rather than the stressful event itself.
It is in everyone’s best interest to take another look at Post Traumatic Stress with a calm and common sense approach. Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is actually very natural. Almost all of us have experienced or witnessed something horrible or frightening in our lives. Remember, the definition of what is considered traumatic in anyone’s eyes varies widely depending on many factors, including personal history and personality. Traumatic experiences can include anything that causes fear, intense pain, or horror. Examples range from car accidents to natural disasters to violent crime and combat.
It is very important to realize that we all deal with our difficult experiences in the most adaptive way we know. Most of us try to make sense of the event in some way, attempt to integrate the experience into our lives, and then do our best to go on, as unaffected as possible. For most people, the pain of a traumatic event causes some problems in the weeks after the experience — many sleep poorly, have nightmares, remember the event through intrusive memories, and feel generally anxious, jittery, and unsafe for a little while. For most, time takes care of us and helps us move on without too much interference in our lives.
The clinical expression of PTS is simply an extension of this short-term suffering. Sometimes, as with combat, the painful memories are too complicated, or too horrible, or there are too many of them, to let them play out in a way that allows healing from them. Or/also in the case with combat there is simply no time for this natural progression of the experience. For many combat veterans who have lived through something traumatic, the next patrol or flight or patient is waiting for us, and people depend on us to be able to do our jobs. There is no time to stop and feel the short-term effects of what happened. In these cases, the adaptive thing is to avoid the memory; avoid thinking about it, put it away to deal with later.
The problem with combat is that many of our veterans today have been avoiding dealing with it for years. Once we figure out how to avoid, we get really good at it. Again, for many people, this works, but everyone has a limit. The experience or experiences (often cumulative with combat, as you can imagine) eventually demands that we pay attention to them, at last giving them the time they need to be processed.
The symptoms of PTS are simply symptoms of that avoidance. We experience the event in many ways, including through dreams or nightmares, intrusive images, or flashbacks. We feel the anxiety, fear, and horror again through general feelings of being unsafe, afraid, irritable, and very vigilant – and things like loud noises make us jump. And we feel numb, a defense mechanism that protects us from the cumulative effect of waiting all this time to finally REALLY FEEL the grief – or the loss, or the fear, or the terror or horror or the exhaustion. Numb is easier. The problem is, numb and disconnected, and withdrawn, and avoiding anything that reminds the person of the event causes dysfunction in our lives. We avoid restaurants and movie theaters as they are crowded and loud, and we can’t clearly see the exit. We avoid group gatherings of former comrades, although these have the potential to be healing. And we avoid time with our families because children are unpredictable – when of course, this is what we crave most of all.
PTS can be treated, and treatment works. It involves 3-4 months of therapy that involves processing the events; this experience often leads to growth and greater resilience.
Combat vets who have experienced PTS are just like all of us. They lived through something awful. But maybe unlike us, they didn’t have time to take off their packs and let the experience work itself out, the way many of us have. They had to go right back to protecting people.
Many persons with PTS try to hide what they are going through. They feel that they will be labeled, discounted or unfairly judged. During the times that the person is not “okay” he/she may feel that they must deal with it alone. We are not mental health professionals, but we can help to create a healing environment in the workplace with a simple rule. Let persons with PTS know that it is okay not to be okay. Silence about PTS causes far more problems in the workplace than PTS does.
When the silence of PTS is lifted in the workplace, those persons with PTS can speak to supervisors about their needs. Supervisors will be more confident and open to one of the hundreds of workplace accommodations and solutions for PTS that are currently available to them through the “JOB ACCOMMODATION NETWORK.”
We must lift the silence. Otherwise we will have employees with PTS that may be affecting job performance who are afraid to talk about it to their supervisor and supervisors who suspect what is wrong but feel they can’t talk about it to the employee. There are no winners at the inevitable conclusion of this scenario.
Human Resource Professionals need to state the obvious. If hiring Wounded Warriors is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right.