For some Veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), going to work can be a challenge. Maybe you feel like your PTSD affects your relationships with your co-workers. Maybe you have a hard time dealing with the noise levels in your workplace. Maybe nightmares or insomnia make it difficult to concentrate and function at work.
If you’re struggling with PTSD, it doesn’t mean you can’t work or won’t have a successful or rewarding career. With the right strategies and support, you may be able to manage your PTSD and be a productive, successful employee.
With the right coping mechanisms, treatment and support in place, it’s still possible to thrive at work.
As a Veteran, you have a lot of valuable skills to offer your employer. Veterans’ training and Service often gives them the skills to tackle tough challenges, perform well under pressure and lead others successfully.
Check out this article for more information on managing your PTSD in the workplace, resources that are available to support you and your rights as an employee.
How Can PTSD Impact You at Work?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there are some common symptoms of PTSD that Veterans may experience, including flashbacks, hyperarousal, negative emotions and more. These PTSD symptoms can be triggered anywhere, even when you’re at work.
At work, your symptoms might show up in the following ways:
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty with co-workers
- Memory problems
- Anxiety and fear
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or on edge
- Loss of motivation
How Can You Manage Your PTSD in the Workplace?
Managing PTSD in the workplace can be challenging. PTSD affects people in different ways, and everyone’s experience is unique. But when you become aware of what triggers your PTSD, as well as what coping mechanisms work best for you, you may find it’s possible to manage your PTSD and keep building your career. Here are some tips:
- Figure out what your triggers are. According to VA, trauma reminders or triggers are places, people, sounds or situations that can trigger a memory of your trauma and cause symptoms such as flashbacks, anger or anxiety. If you know what your triggers are, you can put a plan in place to manage them. For example, if you’re triggered by loud noises, find a quiet room where you can retreat to when you need a break. If you fear being startled from behind, move or arrange your desk in a way that ensures people only approach you from the front.
- Determine what coping techniques work best for you. It’s important to try to come up with a few coping techniques that work for you. Maybe it’s having a pair of headphones and a calming playlist that you can put on to help you relax. Maybe it’s a stress ball you keep at your desk or a photograph of something/someone special. The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests trying the 5-5-5 technique, which helps you stay present and remain grounded if you’re triggered into a flashback. For this technique, you name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
- Make your treatment a priority. If you’re already being treated for PTSD, continue with your treatment and work with your employer to ensure you can make and keep your appointments. Talk to your health care provider about specific solutions to work-related issues you may be experiencing. Remember, PTSD is a treatable condition and consistent treatment can help. VA also offers mobile apps to help you cope with PTSD. Find one you can download that may help you get through difficult situations at work.
- Ask for reasonable accommodations. Once you know what triggers your PTSD, ask for a reasonable accommodation that would help you succeed in the workplace. This can include noise-canceling headphones to help with upsetting noises, scheduled rest breaks to avoid fatigue or a tape recorder to help you remember important conversations or meetings. The Job Accommodation Network offers several accommodation ideas for PTSD, as well as testimony from people who have used accommodations successfully. Be prepared to engage in an interactive process with your employer to determine which reasonable accommodation(s) can be implemented in your specific role.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness. More people are turning to meditation as a way to boost their overall mental health. Breathing exercises can be done anytime, anywhere and can help us stay calm when we experience stress. Check out Mindfulness and Meditation: An Easy Guide for Getting Started for some tips.
- Move more. According to the National Library of Medicine, exercise can improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and stress levels while improving cognitive function. Take a walk at lunch, stretch out and move around every hour to promote better overall mental health.
- Maintain a good work-life balance. Find time to do things that bring you joy when you aren’t working. It’s important to take care of yourself and do activities that are important to you, such as exercise, spending time with loved ones or relaxing with a good book.
- Let people in. Struggling with PTSD can feel isolating, especially if you feel like no one understands what you’re going through. Consider seeking out a mentor (maybe another Veteran) or someone else who can relate to you. If you’re comfortable, consider talking to your employer or co-workers about your PTSD. You can educate them on PTSD, what it looks like and how best to support you.
- Get the support you deserve. If your PTSD symptoms continue to interfere with your job or you find yourself unable to cope using strategies of your own, you should consider seeking outside help. VA offers details about the types of therapy available, including talk therapy, cognitive processing therapy, different medications and more. Work with someone who specializes in PTSD to get the treatment that’s right for you.
What Rights Do You Have in the Workplace?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), if you have PTSD, depression or another mental health condition, you are protected against discrimination and harassment at your work under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What does this entail? Here is some basic information from the EEOC:
- It is illegal for your employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you or rejecting you for a promotion on the basis of that protected disability.
- You have workplace privacy rights. In most situations, you can keep your condition private. Your employer is only allowed to ask medical questions in certain situations, such as after you ask for a reasonable accommodation, to comply with affirmative action programs for people with disabilities or if there is objective evidence that you may pose a safety risk or may be unable to do your job. Your employer must keep your information private and cannot share it with your co-workers (except for informing supervisors or managers of necessary accommodations or restrictions of work duties).
- You may have a legal right to reasonable accommodations to help you perform and keep your job. A reasonable accommodation is some type of change in the way things are normally done at work, such as an altered break or work schedule, or a quiet office space or specific equipment. If a reasonable accommodation would help you do your job, your employer must provide one to you unless it involves significant difficulty or expense.
- You may also find that you have additional rights under other laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act or provisions of certain state or local laws.
VA’s National Center for PTSD is the world’s leading research and educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress. Explore all of their resources for Veterans with PTSD including treatment options, immediate assistance, mobile resources and more. You can search for specific PTSD treatment programs within VA using this locator tool.
- AboutFace is a website featuring more than 1,000 videos of Veterans talking about their experiences with PTSD and treatment. Hearing other Veterans talk about PTSD may help you feel less alone, recognize if you’re having symptoms and learn about how different forms of treatment can help.
- The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers the Ticket to Work program for Veterans receiving Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. The program provides career development to help you find success in the workplace. SSA also recommends asking your employer about your employee assistance program, which may allow you access to mental health professionals who can help you identify triggers, provide stress management and coping tools.
Your PTSD can be triggered anywhere, including at your job. With the right coping mechanisms, treatment and support in place, it’s still possible to thrive at work.