Three Ways to Support a Coworker Who Has PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (often known as PTSD) is more common that you might think. Since approximately 8% of the U.S. population (24.4 million people) has this issue at any given time, chances are good that you work with someone who has or has had PTSD. People can develop PTSD from lots of different experiences, not just combat. They might have been in a car accident, a natural disaster, an abusive relationship, or any number of dangerous events. Regardless of the cause, here are some ways you can be a supportive coworker.
1. Let them know you’re coming.
You’ve probably seen someone jump and shout when startled—an intense startle response is part of PTSD. If you can, make some sound so your coworker knows you’re approaching them or knock on their door before opening it. They might prefer to sit by the door or with their back to a wall, so offer them that seat if it’s possible. Don’t tap them on the shoulder from behind! If other coworkers are startling them on purpose and laughing about it, tell them that’s not funny and refuse to join in. Also, the things that trigger traumatic memories vary from person to person and can appear oddly specific—cinnamon gum, a certain song, rainy days. If your coworker says that something bothers them, it’s best to respect that and not question them about why (more about this in #2).
2. Give them space.
If you find out that a coworker has PTSD, it’s only human to want to find out why. But asking about their trauma can bring up painful reactions and memories. They may or may not decide to tell you. The best thing you can do is let them make that decision and at their own pace. If they start talking about it, give them your attention, but hold off from asking about details. Trauma takes away our sense of control. Giving someone the space to tell their story at their own pace and in the amount of detail that they feel comfortable with gives them back a little bit of that sense of control.
3. Remember that PTSD is a valid medical condition.
When we can’t see an illness or disability, it can be easy to start questioning it or wondering why someone can’t just “get over it.” We might see them leaving work for appointments or having reduced duties and wonder why they need “special treatment.” PTSD affects the mind and body, and the effects of trauma can last for years, decades, or a lifetime. Often, especially with professional help, the symptoms can decrease for a while, but then flare up again when faced with a very stressful time or a triggering event. Believing your coworker is a huge part of being supportive.
If you’d like to learn more about PTSD, there are many good resources at the National Center for PTSD, and I often write about it on my website (like in this post and this one) and on social media. PTSD is real, it’s common, and there is help for it.
Image by Roman Bozhko