Case Study: How PTSD Affects People In The Workplace
Dan works in a customer facing sales role. He has been an active member of the Army Reserves for 10 years and served a tour of Afghanistan in 2011, deploying just days after his dad died. He found it hard to deal with his grief whilst there and returned home feeling angry and alone.
At work Dan struggled to maintain composure and found it increasingly hard to talk to people. He tried to deal with his declining mental health on his own but after 3 years he went to the doctor and was diagnosed with severe depression, severe anxiety and PTSD. Dan has not told his employer and believes he would be ostracised or forced out if he admits to having mental health issues.
Describe a bad day
No two days are the same, it kind of goes in cycles. Something will trigger it, normally someone says or does something then I get annoyed and angry. The depression is where you don’t care about anything; you’ve got no feelings about anything, nothing matters. Then the anxiety is where you care about everything. When you’ve got both on the same day it’s like a champagne bottle that’s been shaken up but you can’t pop the cork. You feel like you need to pop the cork to release it but if you do, the proverbial hits the fan. You end up having huge arguments with everyone about anything. Then it’s like a comedown. You’re wound up about everything, all your emotions are heightened, then you don’t care about anything and then you feel guilty. I think that’s part of the PTSD. The guilt about how you’re feeling when you don’t really have any reason to.
How do you deal with those days when you’re in a work situation?
It’s like being a clown. You’ve got to put on a mask, just put on your happy face and pretend that nothing’s wrong. If you don’t then you won’t get out of bed, or you’ll punch someone and lose your job. You pretend that nothing’s wrong, you laugh and smile and joke. Someone cracks a joke and you laugh because that’s what you’re supposed to do but inside you’re not. If it was a physical thing, say if you’d broken your leg or your arm, you’d phone up your boss and say “I can’t come in to work today” but you feel like you can’t phone up and say “I’m depressed.”
Why do you feel you can’t?
It’s that stigma. Especially coming from a military background where it’s man up and dry your eyes; get over it. It’s so easy to say you’ve got depression or anxiety because you can’t actually see it.
You’ve been diagnosed by a doctor; does that not make you feel comfortable bringing it up to your boss?
No. The other part of it is although all you want to do is sit at home or not even get out of bed, you know you can’t because you’ve got to deal with life. You have to go to work, pay bills, eat dinner and do chores – normal everyday stuff – when all you really want to do is disappear into a hole somewhere.
Was it a weight lifted when you talked to people and got diagnosed?
In a way it was but then you feel like a con artist. I’ve got PTSD but I never saw anyone get blown up, I never got shot at, I never lost my legs. There are people who have done all that and they’re fine. You feel like you’re weak, weak in the head.
Would you foresee a situation where you would be comfortable telling your boss?
I don’t know. I think society needs to change; people need to recognise that it’s an illness. You’re as incapacitated because of your mental state as if you’d lost a limb or something but people can’t look at you and see it. It’s your word but it’s also you battling you.
Do you think you could recognise if any of your co-workers was struggling with depression and would you feel comfortable talking to them about it?
I don’t think I’d recognise it because people put on a front. You’re battling against yourself every day and you have to get on with life. No-one outside my very, very close family knows that I’ve got it, not even my best mates. Some people might turn to drugs, drink or violence but I feel like I’ve got too many responsibilities and I’ve got too much of a good life to let myself do that, so I just keep it bottled up. People who are suffering with PTSD and depression keep it hidden but they take it out on those closest to them. Unless they’re turning up to work drunk or self harming, unless they’re ready to talk about it I don’t think you’d necessarily recognise the symptoms because everyone deals with it differently.
What changes need to take place within a workplace for you to feel comfortable talking about it?
Knowing that your job’s going to be safe would be a start. If I took a month off work for depression I don’t think I’™d keep my job. It’s easy to tell your boss that you’ve broken your arm or your leg or you have cancer but mental illness is a very personal thing. I think it’s still seen as a sign of weakness, that there’s something wrong with you.
Did you know that employers don’t discriminate against you for mental illness?
I didn’t know that. I think it’s the same as if you are off work for 3 months with a broken leg, you’d lose wages and you could potentially lose your job because you’re off all that time for illness. It’s an illness rather than a disability.
Some forms of depression are classified as a disability in the workplace; this would fall within the Disability Discrimination Act.
Then you’d have to trust your boss to know that and abide by it. Managers still have to cover the shifts; they still have to deal with the practicalities of someone not being in work. If you’re taking months off work or missing days here, there and everywhere then if someone wants you replaced they’ll find an excuse, whether it’s recognised by law or not. That’s how I feel anyway. I’m afraid to tell my boss because I don’t think my job would be safe.
I also feel that I’m trapped between two worlds – military and civilian life. When I got back from Afghanistan I was back in my regular life within a week. It was “thank you very much see you later” we are just expected to go back to how things were before. Nobody can understand what it’s like. You come home and everyone just wants to know if you shot someone. It changes you but you feel like you’ve just been picked up and dropped back into your previous life. It’s really hard for friends, family and co-workers to understand, they’re glad you are back but don’t know how hard it is to readjust, particularly when going back into a working environment.
Pam Rogerson, HR Director at ELAS Business Support says: “All employers should know that some forms of mental illness are a disability and, as an employee, you are heavily protected from any form of discrimination under the Disability Protection Act. Communication channels need to be open within the workplace, one way to help this would be for employers to display their policies and procedures around the workplace and make sure employees are aware of them.
“HR is acutely aware of the problems that employees with mental health issues suffer from, how they mistrust people and can find it very hard to talk about. We recommend that businesses have an effective communication policy and sickness/absence policy in place for referrals and to ensure their employees know that anything they discuss with HR is in complete confidence.
“PTSD doesn’t just affect members of the armed forces; we’re also seeing an increase within the rail and manufacturing industries. Drivers can be diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing or being involved in an accident, it is more widespread than people know.
“An Occupational Health Policy can also help. As Dan said, mental health is a very personal subject and people might find it easier to talk to a medical professional than their boss. Our Employee Assistance Programme provides access to 24/7 telephone support, counselling services and psychological assessments as well as return to work services that can help support an employee and enable them to remain in work.”