By Diane Atwood

The workplace, all by itself, causes a lot of people a lot of stress. In fact, in the United States, work is at the top of the list of things that stress us out.

But sometimes, it’s what may have happened outside of work that adds to the stress people feel at work — especially if someone witnessed or was involved in a traumatic event.

The terms post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are fairly common these days. Most people associate PTS and PTSD with only horrific events, such as war, severe abuse, a vicious assault or a natural disaster. “It can be much more subtle than that,” says Dean Paterson, a health consultant in Maine for the past 14 years. “It can happen to people who’ve had a difficult childbirth experience or were in a car accident. They could have grown up in a dysfunctional family, were bullied or picked on at school as a child.”

Dean helped organize an upcoming seminar for employers to help them recognize signs of post-traumatic stress in employees and understand how it may affect how they perform their jobs. “For instance,” she explains, “a lot of veterans with PTS don’t want to sit with their back to a window. They also want to see a door — an escape route. The same thing could happen to someone who was trapped in a car because of an accident. Or if it is a noisy workplace, a loud sound could mimic gunfire or a car crashing. A supervisor who humiliates or embarrasses employees could conjure up troublesome memories for someone who suffered emotional or physical abuse as a child.”

For various reasons, not every employee with post-traumatic stress will be eager to share that information with his/her boss. “A lot of people keep it to themselves,” says Dean. “It’s certainly connected to the stigma around mental health and people are afraid they won’t be hired in the first place or may lose their jobs.”

Sometimes, a simple accommodation is all it would take to help an employee work better but many workplaces are a hierarchy and if you were to, say, get a window seat before your time, it might end up making things worse.

At the very least, employers can educate themselves about post-traumatic stress. Coming up with a solution to any problem has the potential to not only help the employee be more successful, but also more productive.

The National Center for PTSD has a comprehensive guide that includes symptoms and effective treatments. Here’s a questionnaire from the guide:

PTSD Screen

In your life, have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible or upsetting that, in the past month you:

  • Have had nightmares about the experience or thought about it when you did not want to?
  • Tried hard not to think about the experience or avoided situations that reminded you of it?
  • Were constantly on guard, watchful or easily startled?
  • Felt numb or detached from others, activities or your surroundings?

If you answered “yes” to any three questions, the guide advises you to get more information from a mental health care provider to see you might have PTSD.