Workplace Culture Can Help Vets Manage PTSD

A few weeks ago, Rick Stockburger was having a conversation at the offices of Brite Energy Innovators in downtown Warren when a friend sneaked up behind him. Like friends do, he gave Stockburger a scare. He didn’t know that Stockburger has been managing post-traumatic stress disorder since he returned from serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.

“It sent me into a panic attack where I had to go sit down by myself and do my breathing exercises. I know how to cope with it and be good after 10 minutes,” says Stockburger, the president and CEO of Brite. “When I was first diagnosed and especially when I wasn’t medicated, that would ruin a week of my life. I wouldn’t have been able to get out of that.”

The lessons Stockburger has learned from living with and getting treatment for PTSD, he says, have had an impact on the way he leads the business incubator and the culture in the building. Those methods aren’t just about making Brite more accommodating for veterans, but improving the environment for all its tenants and staff.

“I think the CEO is responsible for setting the tone and culture of an organization. Everybody working here knows I’ll take out the garbage and do both the best jobs and the worst jobs. We take mental health seriously here. We do that, especially, because I know that not having good mental health sucks. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t take it seriously,” he says.

“I’ve found that, regardless of whether I had PTSD or not, I can have many more productive hours if I focus on taking care of myself. … By asking for help, I’ve been a lot more effective as a CEO, as an entrepreneur, as an employer, as a friend, as a husband, as everything I am to others,” Stockburger says.

There’s little doubt that veterans are a valuable part of the workforce. Business leaders hail their strong work ethic, their problem-solving abilities and their adaptability. But hiring veterans also comes with important considerations for employers.

According to Veterans Affairs, between 11% and 20% of veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom – veterans like Stockburger – have post-traumatic stress disorder, while 12% of Gulf War veterans and 15% of Vietnam War veterans are diagnosed.

The disorder exists on a continuum, says Dr. Heather Flores, associate chief for PTSD treatment at the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System. And PTSD encompasses a wide range of symptoms and severity. For each of the roughly 8 million people in the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder, the disorder presents in its own way. And it’s not limited to veterans; survivors of sexual assault, natural disasters or severe injuries can also suffer PTSD.

“What we’re looking at is someone who’s experienced some form of a traumatic event at some point in their lives. In reaction to that, they have symptoms that cause impairment in their daily lives,” Flores says. “One of the big symptoms is that they have trouble not thinking about the memory. They may have nightmares about it. They may have anxiety or emotional reactions to things that are reminders. They may struggle to connect with family and friends. They may be overly aware of what’s going on around them and may be easily startled. It could be problems sleeping or irritability.”

In the workplace, it’s important for company leaders and managers to be able to identify the signs of PTSD, says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health.

Because the symptoms can overlap with other mental-health conditions, Gruttadaro strongly advises leaving the diagnoses to professionals. But it’s still valuable to understand what it can look like.

“A drop in performance or productivity are among the signs. But that can be difficult to hone in on as PTSD. Being aware that something’s wrong is a good step,” she says.

“It’s important to say, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing,’ and be objective in describing what you’re seeing in terms of performance,” Gruttadaro continues. “Say, ‘I’m concerned about what I’m seeing. Let’s talk about it.’ Don’t ask if they’re OK; take an open-ended approach. Let them know what support’s available to them. Even if they back away, sharing that information may lead them to reach out.”

The decision to disclose PTSD diagnosis, she adds, should always be left up to the employee.

The work environment can also be an important factor, say Rachel Tamblin and  Lauren Friedman, vocational rehabilitation counselors with the VA. The pair are among the team that works with veterans to get them back into the workforce or into school.

“We hope that because a veteran goes through some treatment that by the time they get into a workplace, they have the skills that they can use to navigate it,” Friedman says. “We always encourage good communication with supervisors. … We want to make sure there’s somebody they know is a go-to person that they can talk to if they need extra assistance. We keep in touch with people and we encourage them to reach out to us as soon as possible about issues they’re having in the workplace or school so we can be proactive.”

The “gold standard” for treatment, Gruttadaro says, is a combination of medication and therapy.

Stockburger uses both, as well as practices such as meditation to reduce the impact of panic attacks caused by his PTSD.

As part of the VA’s push to provide “whole-person” care, the health-care system encourages veterans to engage in practices like mindfulness and yoga to manage their symptoms.

“I should be doing it actively instead of responding – that’s what my therapist tells me. But I’ve gotten good at responding and knowing when something’s happening and when I need to go meditate, pray and do the things I need to do,” Stockburger says.

The physical space can also help veterans manage their PTSD, Timblin adds. The symptoms can be triggered by loud, sudden noises, frequent movement just out of a person’s periphery or other actions that cause them to re-experience trauma.

“They may struggle with being in the middle of a room or having a walkway or door behind them. If they can adjust where their desk is or the way their computer sits, that can be a help,” Timblin says, or offering breaks to help them manage their anxieties.

Adds Gruttadaro: “More often than not, people appreciate being offered accommodations such as where their desk is, the option to use noise-cancelling headphones or having a flexible schedule so they aren’t on-site when there’s lots of loud noises. The most important thing is to ask a valued employee what their needs are.”

Perhaps the biggest consideration is understanding that the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder are often different from their presentation in pop culture, where a car backfiring or fireworks can send a veteran into a rage or an uncontrollable breakdown.

“They always portray the rage. I’ve never experienced that,” Stockburger says. “I’ve only experienced panic attacks; it was mostly right after I got back. I’ve learned to cope with those things. I’d be shaking and have to go to my basement.”

With experience as a business leader and a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, Stockburger says the simplest way to accommodate employees with PTSD is to just be a “good employer.”

“That means trusting your employees and being someone who provides the resources necessary for employees to thrive,” he says. “I view my job as giving everyone here the tools they need and getting stuff out of their way so they can do their thing. Sometimes that stuff is mental-health issues.”

Pictured: Rick Stockburger says he’s learned from his own experience with PTSD to “take mental health seriously.”