You Need to Know Why PTSD Could Be Impacting Return to Work

After a traumatic event, injured workers may want to avoid the scene of the accident. But returning to work could help them heal.
By: | August 29, 2019

After a tragic accident or death, memories of the event can linger in the form of PTSD.

Witnesses can be bombarded with nightmares that disrupt their sleep or flashbacks that leave them afraid to go near the site of the incident. The disease can be both physically and emotionally debilitating.

While PTSD has gained awareness as a mental health disorder that commonly affects soldiers and victims of violent crimes, injured workers can also be impacted by the disorder after catastrophic accidents.

“Looking at the workplace today, there are violent situations in the workplace, there are individuals that are exposed to catastrophic events, and PTSD, unfortunately, is a disorder that can go along with these types of events,” said Mariellen Blue, national director of case management at Genex.

During a recent Genex podcast, Blue discussed how PTSD affects an employee’s return to work timeline and how case managers can spot the condition.

Who’s Affected

Even though most people who experience traumatic events will not develop PTSD, the condition still impacts about eight million adults a year. This means that nearly eight percent of all U.S. adults are affected by the condition at some point in their lives and women are twice as likely to experience PTSD than men, according to Blue.

“Most people who experience or witness a traumatic or catastrophic event will have some degree of difficulty coping, as well as experience feelings such as shock, denial, fear, nervousness, anger, hopelessness, and even guilt,” Blue said.

“Not everyone is going to develop PTSD. Most individuals are going to recover. They’re not going to need any intense intervention.”

For victims of PTSD, however, the symptoms don’t ease with time. They get worse, lasting for months and even years after the accident.

As the symptoms worsen, they affect a patient’s ability to function during day-to-day activities and can cause relationships to deteriorate, which can affect a patient’s ability to return to work.

“For them, doing normal, ordinary tasks can become quite overwhelming, and the ability to develop and maintain relationships is often negatively impacted and there’s also an increased risk of self‑injury behaviors, again, such as substance abuse, self‑mutilation, and even a high risk of suicide,” Blue said.

Avoiding the Site of an Accident

A primary symptom of PTSD is deliberate avoidance of the accident site — a place where unwelcome memories often resurface.

“[Many PTSD patients] experience severe physical and emotional distress when they’re exposed to triggers that remind them of that traumatic event. For example, the anniversary of the event, passing the site of the event, and even things such as sights, sounds, or smells that were associated with that particular event,” Blue said.

When the site of an accident is also a patient’s place of employment, what was a daily workplace can turn into a personal site of turmoil.

Despite this difficulty, Blue said that it is important for employees to focus on getting back to work in order to continue healing.

“Research has shown that employees who are unable to return to work also experience more persistent PTSD symptoms,” she said.

“Without clear strategies in place to assist in developing and facilitating a successful return-to-work plan, that individual can remain in a cycle where their PTSD symptoms are preventing them from returning to work, but their absence from work is negatively impacting their ability to overcome the PTSD symptoms.”

In addition to delayed return to work, symptoms of PTSD can also interfere with an employees ability focus, make it difficult for them to stay awake during the work day, and cause them to lash out at co-workers.

An Eye Towards Early Intervention

Blue advises workers’ compensation case managers to know the symptoms of PTSD and to educate their employees on the condition after a traumatic event.

“Unfortunately, there is a stigma with PTSD, and the best way I can describe it is that people tend to fear what they don’t understand.,” Blue said.

“Case managers are in a really unique position to recognize risk factors and symptoms of PTSD in the individuals that they’re working with and to assist them with getting the right diagnosis and the proper treatment.”

Knowing the factors that put employees at a higher risk of PTSD is one way that case managers can spot the issue early on in a patient’s treatment.

Blue noted that a history of trauma or abuse, dealing with additional emotional stress after the event and working in high stress jobs, like the military or as an emergency responder, can all increase the likelihood of developing PTSD.

If a case manager thinks an employee is suffering with PTSD after a traumatic event, it’s important to open a dialogue with both the patient and their physician to make a plan for treatment.

“It’s important to remember that everyone is different and PTSD affects people differently, so a treatment plan that works for one person may not work for everybody,” Blue said.

“The case manager can work with the patient and their mental health care professional to find and coordinate the best treatment for their symptoms as well as provide that ongoing education and support to that individual.”

Blue also recommended that having patients visit to the site of the accident before returning to work can be beneficial. She said that allowing flexible schedules and providing additional training can also help workers suffering from PTSD overcome any memory issues they may have.

“The goal of treatment for PTSD is to reduce the physical and emotional symptoms, improve daily functioning and help that individual better cope with the traumatic event that triggered the disorder,” she said.

To learn more about PTSD in workers’ compensation, check out the episode “How PTSD is Affecting Return to Work,” of the Inside Workers’ Comp podcast. &

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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