“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.The people we trust.can help us know that we are not alone.” ― Fred Rogers
Part 3 of 3
Today, as I publish, is the day before Veterans Day: a particularly poignant time to wrap up this 3-part series on PTSD, so indelibly associated with those who serve. However, as I touched on in parts 1 and 2 of this series, the condition afflicts not just veterans, but some 8% of the general population. My hope is that this realization will motivate us all to recognize the symptoms, understand the challenges and help alleviate the suffering of PTSD (that of others and perhaps our own).
Since PTSD is so shockingly common, you can be pretty sure you’re going to encounter someone with the condition in your everyday life. At work, you may need to lead, collaborate or otherwise interact constructively with this person. Your ability to do so may surprise you.
Understanding trumps punishment.
Traditional strategies like disciplining, firing or ignoring someone who exhibits PTSD symptoms may seem to solve a workplace problem. But the odds are, others nearby have similar issues. These others may be veterans, who are returning to the civilian work force in growing numbers. Or they could be civilians who have undergone other trauma. Some of this trauma may have taken place at work.
However–despite the surprising rates of PTSD-and lurid media coverage of extreme PTSD-related outbursts–people you encounter with the condition are extremely unlikely to hurt anyone, except perhaps themselves.
“The vast majority of people with PTSD-veterans and non-veterans alike-do not commit violent acts,” writes Jessica Pishko in Pacific Standard.
Instead, people with PTSD are themselves far more likely to be handicapped by its symptoms-especially their inability to focus, communicate clearly and relate positively to others.
At home, PTSD shows up as difficulty working through personal issues. At work, it results in dysfunctional teams and reduced productivity.
Policies vs. realities
Although many of the best companies tout their employee-focused policies, “brutal competition remains an inescapable component of workers’ daily lives,” writes Noam Scheiber in The New York Times.
A controversial New York Times article in September exposed how employees at Amazon are “encouraged to tear each others’ ideas apart,” to secretly criticize each other to supervisors, and to meet performance standards that the company itself says are “unreasonably high.”
And employees of other organizations, whom we interviewed for this article, also report “a huge amount of secrecy” around extreme stress and ensuing dysfunction in the workplace. These things are generally dismissed as “part of the job” and “the elephant in the room.” Discussing anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed are taboo, reinforcing isolation and intensifying stress.
Few organizational leaders understand these issues. And managers themselves struggle to cope with their own stress. Leaders on all levels are nervous, annoyed and fearful that they may be blamed for disruptions in the face of ever-growing expectations.
Meanwhile, ever-increasing stress becomes more likely to trigger PTSD reactions among workers who suffer the condition. Further, the same stress can overwhelm the nervous systems of previously healthy people and elicit PTSD symptoms from them, too.
An important distinction.
Although modern workplaces are often exhausting and stressful, it doesn’t follow that all employees will develop PTSD.
Who escapes? In general, workers who feel a sense of control can withstand the pressure of “unreasonably high” demands.
It’s when events are consistently overwhelming and employees feel no control that helplessness and isolation push the nervous system past its healthy limits and into the “trauma zone,” i.e., PTSD.
Emotionally intelligent, forward-thinking leaders and co-workers can build supportive, collaborative, creative environments where workers do have a healthy sense of control.
Research indicates that such environments not only reduce stress and the likelihood of PTSD, they also tend to improve bottom lines.
Jan Bruce writes in Fortune, “Wherever possible, increased demands should be accompanied by greater solicitation of input about how to do things better, and a culture designed to make employees feel that they make a difference.”
When employees have purpose and feel empowered to make contributions, then the drive toward a shared mission–even an impossibly difficult one–can be inspiring and motivating.
Even in the most trying circumstances, people (even those with PTSD) make extraordinary contributions when they can make choices and feel appreciated.
Your own opportunity.
As noted previously, PTSD is neither a permanent illness nor an inevitable cause of “meltdowns.” But particular help is sometimes needed.
Managers or not, we each have the opportunity to help when help is needed.
Here are some visible PTSD-related symptoms you might notice at work someday:
-A blank look on the face, seemingly unseeing eyes
-Sweating with no apparent cause
-Rapid or erratic breathing
If you notice someone exhibiting such symptoms, you can be of enormous help through doing simple things like:
-Making eye contact (but only if the other person initiates)
-Sitting next to the person (not in front of them)
-Putting a steady hand on their shoulder (if allowed in your workplace)
-Breathing easily and slowly
-Speaking in a calm, steady voice
-Keeping both of your feet on the floor to maintain your own steadiness
Your calm, steady presence can provide a human connection, which is often key to helping a traumatized person regain emotional balance and a sense of control.
As a bonus, you may feel more in control yourself, reducing your own stress and possible isolation. In today’s hectic work environment, that may be the rarest of “win win” situations.