Adopting a trauma-informed approach in the workplace

June 27, 2024

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By Mark Debus, Clinical Manager, Behavioral Health

In the U.S., June is designated as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Center for PTSD, about 12 million people in the U.S. are currently living with PTSD. This condition can affect a range of people exposed to life-threatening situations, including military veterans and survivors of sexual assault, natural disasters, serious accidents or acts of violence.

While we have come a long way in our understanding and de-stigmatization of PTSD in recent years, many who experience its often-debilitating symptoms remain hesitant to seek help. That’s why efforts to raise awareness about PTSD and treatments that can significantly improve people’s quality of life are so important. In this blog, I’ll aim to contribute to June’s nationwide conversation about PTSD awareness by exploring some important themes and recent developments affecting employers and their employees.

Protecting the helpers and avoiding re-traumatization of victims

In the past decade or so, we’ve seen a shift in the handling of workers’ compensation claims associated with trauma on the job. Traditionally, the employee would be asked to repeat the story of their trauma in detail to various people: their manager, human resources or safety officer, police, claims examiner, medical and mental health practitioners, and so on. This approach, however, was found to be further disabling employees, as they were reliving their trauma with each recounting of the event. We do generally rely on first-person accounts when it comes to workplace injuries, but this was proving to be counterproductive in cases involving trauma. A more sensitive tactic that provides a better experience for the employee is for those investigating the claim to use existing reports from police, safety officers and other sources as much as possible.

Another related development in recent years has been the incidence of PTSD among professionals who support victims of trauma — even those who did not experience the traumatic incident first-hand. Claims examiners, police officers, mental health professionals and others who repeatedly hear stories of trauma on the job are experiencing increasing amounts of highly disruptive, work-related stress. Their continual exposure to accounts of trauma is having a cumulative adverse effect on their mental health. As such, reducing the number of times a victim must recount their story is not only for their own benefit; it’s also better for the well-being of the professionals who support them.

Treatment options: proven therapies, new frontiers

When you consider the common symptoms of PTSD — which can include severe anxiety, trouble sleeping, isolation and detachment, hypervigilance, memory issues, irritability and vivid flashbacks that can seem like hallucinations — it’s easy to sense how the condition could interfere with a person’s life and leave them feeling helpless. If people take away one message from PTSD Awareness Month, I hope it’s this: Treatment options are available!

Three main trauma-focused talk therapies have been shown to be effective in treating PTSD: 

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that challenges how the patient thinks about their trauma and helps them build a new understanding of the event to reduce its negative impact on their life.
  • Prolonged exposure (PE), where the patient revisits their trauma until the memories are no longer so upsetting. 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which involves focusing on sounds or eye movements while talking about the trauma to help the patient work through their memories. 

Certain anti-depressant medications can also be used to treat the symptoms of PTSD. Additionally, researchers are studying the efficacy of some other psychotropic medications, such as MDMA (“ecstasy”), in conjunction with CBT in helping people with PTSD. Early results have found that, under the guidance of a trained therapist, low doses of MDMA can help some patients reach a state of chemically induced relaxation so they can process their trauma without heightened emotions. Interestingly, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel recently rejected the use of MDMA for PTSD treatment, but research continues in this area. 

The use of virtual reality (VR) as part of the desensitization process in CBT is also a growing area of research. Much more data is needed to determine the safety and broad efficacy of psychotropics and VR technologies in treating PTSD, but new avenues like these may provide some hope to those with severe and lingering symptoms.

Time for employers to step up  

In many areas of mental health, including PTSD, there’s been a longstanding notion of having to lift yourself up and build individual resilience. While resilience is one element of managing and overcoming mental health issues, assigning full responsibility for addressing their own needs to someone who is struggling can lead to feelings of self-blame and make the situation worse. Employers have an important role to play in supporting their employees’ mental well-being — particularly in cases of on-the-job stress and trauma. 

As outlined in our recent blog to which I contributed, employers committed to caring for their people should offer support resources that include (but are not limited to) employee assistance programs (EAP), crisis care in the aftermath of an on-site incident, ample coverage for mental health treatment through their employee benefits, and behavioral health solutions as a part of workers’ compensation claims management. Early intervention has been shown to be a critical factor in recovering from trauma, so therapy via telemedicine can be a useful option to promptly secure care for employees when and where in-person visits are not immediately available. Additionally, people managers should be trained on the warning signs of employee distress and know where to direct their colleagues for appropriate support.

Sedgwick’s behavioral health and crisis care experts are here for you and your employees when it matters most, because caring counts. Please don’t hesitate to call on us to learn how we can help you support your valued employees and their mental health in the aftermath of a traumatic event.

Learn more — explore Sedgwick’s behavioral health solutions for workers’ compensation 

Tags: Behavioral health, benefits, Care, Casualty, Crisis, Helping people, Managed care, Mental health, PTSD, Workers comp, workers compensation, workplace, Workplace health