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PTSD and Work: How Your Job Is Affected by Disability

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Trauma can shake up your life and get in the way of normal tasks. When you develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can cause symptoms that disrupt your sleep and your ability to concentrate. After a traumatic event like a car crash or an assault, you may want to pick up the pieces and return to work, but PTSD can make that difficult. 

At the same time, there’s a stigma surrounding PTSD that it’s just in your head, and you should be able to shake it off. Unfortunately, it may be very difficult to just shake off a mental health issue like PTSD. So, what can you do about work and other duties and obligations? Does PTSD qualify for things like disability benefits and worker’s compensation? 

Learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder and how you can manage your recovery and return to your life. 

How Can PTSD Affect Your Life?


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition caused by a traumatic event or a high-stress period in a person’s life. There are several types of PTSD triggers, including:

  • Sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • War
  • Auto accidents
  • Injury
  • Natural disasters
  • Witnessing death
  • Fires

PTSD is characterized by a heightened sense of danger and stress, even when you’re going about the normal activities of your day. 

You may also experience flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and general anxiety. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. However, around 7% to 8% of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD is more likely to occur in people who experience assault and sexual assault. Women are more likely to experience PTSD than men, with 10% of women and 4% of men dealing with the disorder. 

PTSD can interfere with many aspects of your life, including your job, relationships, health, and quality of life. One of the common symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, which is an aversion to places or activities that remind you of a traumatic event in your past. 

People who experience avoidance may not want to return to locations or participate in activities because they fear it will trigger fear, anxiety, or panic. Avoidance is also a symptom of panic disorders. Panic attacks can occur in someone who has PTSD, increasing the risk of experiencing avoidance. 

Panic attacks can also interfere with your life and work. Panic attacks trigger your fight-or-flight response, which can make it difficult to focus on anything else. Flashbacks that cause you to think about the traumatic event can also cause you to panic or experience anxiety. 

Sleep problems, nightmares, and insomnia are common issues that occur with PTSD. Sleep problems can cause a wide range of consequences that affect your physical and psychological health. However, the short-term effects of poor sleep can include poor concentration, poor memory, and irritability. It can also worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression that can also come with PTSD. 

work-and-ptsd

What Are the Signs of PTSD?

Many people dread going to work in the morning, but if you have PTSD, you may experience symptoms that can significantly impact your life. PTSD can start to affect your performance at work, and it may interfere with your home life if left unaddressed. Signs of work-related PTSD can include the following:

Intrusive Thoughts and Memories

An intrusive thought is a distressing or disturbing thought that you can’t seem to shake off. It’s an unwanted thought that may be recurrent. When it comes to PTSD, the intrusive thought will have to do with your memory of a traumatic event. If your PTSD is caused by a period of high stress, intrusive thoughts may involve multiple events. You may also experience thoughts that cause you to relieve the trauma as if it were happening now, called a flashback. Nightmares that disrupt your sleep or make it difficult to fall asleep are also common. 

Avoidance

Avoidance is a common consequence of PTSD. You may avoid talking about a traumatic event if someone brings it up or even thinking about it. You may also avoid places, activities, and people that were involved in or remind you of a traumatic event. Occupational PTSD may be further complicated if you have an aversion to a person, place, or task you have to encounter as a part of your job.

Negative Mood

PTSD can cause a negative shift in your mood. Anxiety and depression can sometimes cause a similar shift in thinking. As you deal with unpleasant symptoms each day, your outlook and mood may begin to drop. You may experience negative thoughts about yourself, your coworkers, or the world around you. You may feel a sense of hopelessness or pointlessness about the world around you. You may feel emotionally numb and unable to make or maintain close relationships with other people. You also might feel like it’s challenging to feel positive emotions. Some people start to experience memory issues, especially around certain aspects of the traumatic event. 

Intensified Reactions

PTSD can cause changes in your physical and emotional reactions. You may be more easily startled or jumpy. You may feel more vigilant, always on the lookout for danger. This can cause a feeling of anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia. 

What Occupations Are Vulnerable to PTSD?

Many careers can increase your risk of developing PTSD. Military personnel are often thought of when PTSD comes to mind, with good reason. Many veterans deal with PTSD, especially when they do a tour of active duty. Around 15% of Vietnam War veterans were diagnosed with PTSD in the 1980s, and it’s estimated that as much as 30% had the disorder at some point in their lifetime. 

Around 12% of veterans of the Gulf War had PTSD in a given year. Veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom experienced PTSD rates of 11% to 20% in a given year. Many veterans develop PTSD in combat situations, but military personnel can also develop PTSD from accidents and sexual assault.

Other careers also come with high PTSD rates. First responders like firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical services also deal with high rates of PTSD. First responders often witness death, deal with high-stress situations, and find themselves in harm’s way. 

While just one traumatic event is enough to trigger PTSD, first responders may experience hundreds of these events over the course of a career. As PTSD becomes more understood, people in high-risk jobs are getting access to better ways to mitigate the risk of PTSD. Limiting exposure to traumatic situations, taking enough time off, and debriefing with therapists and peer groups can help avoid or address PTSD.

Military and first responders aren’t the only people vulnerable to occupational PTSD. Workers and volunteers that help in the wake of natural or man-made disasters may be vulnerable. A 2013 review of PTSD literature revealed several other occupations that are vulnerable to PTSD, including:

  • Health care professionals
  • Train drivers
  • Divers
  • Journalists
  • Sailors 
  • Bank employees
  • Post office workers
  • Retail workers

Since PTSD can be triggered by many different kinds of traumatic events, you may experience it in any profession.

What If Work Does Cause PTSD?

If you develop PTSD while you’re at work, your next step depends on several factors. Dealing with PTSD that’s caused by your chosen career may be a challenge, but it can be treated. Just like police and first responders, many people experience work-related traumatic events and develop PTSD but go on to have successful careers. 

If a traumatic event happens while you’re at work and when you’re working, resulting PTSD may qualify you for benefits like worker’s compensation. But there is a catch. The rules surrounding workers comp claims separate mental health-related injuries into two categories: mental-mental and physical-mental claims. 

Mental-mental claims involve mental health problems that are caused by mental strain. Physical-mental claims involve mental health problems that are caused by physical injuries or trauma. Unfortunately, mental-mental claims are more difficult to prove than physical-mental claims. PTSD can be caused by both physical and mental trauma. 

A firefighter may develop PTSD after witnessing death, even if they didn’t experience any personal injury or danger. In many cases, you may be compared to coworkers with the same duties, even though it’s possible for two people to experience the same trauma while only one develops PTSD. 

Still, it’s not impossible to show that PTSD was caused at work. In many cases, the cause is obvious. An accident, assault, or harassment can be an event that is outside of the purview of your normal work duties that leads to PTSD in a way that’s easier to prove. However, more subtle causes like a period of increased stress may be difficult to prove. 

PTSD treatment and symptoms may make managing a work schedule difficult at times. You may feel overwhelmed by symptoms, or you may need to attend a treatment program to deal with PTSD. 

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is designed to help people that need to take time off of work because of a medical need or emergency in their family. A mental health issue like an anxiety attack or a PTSD episode can qualify as a health condition under the FMLA, which means it could qualify you for a leave of absence. 

Sources

Kramer, P., AIC. (n.d.). Mental stress claims. from https://www.hausmann-johnson.com/blog/mental-stress-claims

Skorstad, M., Lie, A., Conradi, H., Heir, T., & Weisæth, L. (2013, March 26). Work-related post-traumatic stress disorder. from https://academic.oup.com/occmed/article/63/3/175/1413569

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. (1993). The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/laws-and-regulations/laws/fmla

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018, July 24). VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_veterans.asp

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018, September 13). VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp

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