Dealing with Post-Pandemic PTSD — A Manager’s Guide

How to help employees work through their post-traumatic stress while staying focused on company goals.
Dealing with Post-Pandemic PTSD — A Manager’s Guide
Sharne McDonald

The workplace has become a battlefield. With technology and automation at our fingertips, why is it that we’re made aware of more stressors, syndromes and diseases every day? In recent years, mental health has really come to the fore as an important issue that needs to be addressed with both wisdom and sensitivity at work and home. Gone are the days where Pops hangs up his hat after an 8-hour work day and lovingly asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Many households are now headed by a woman or have two breadwinners, as life’s financial load increases and the global economy keeps shrinking. On top of this, we all have to deal with the ebb and flow of the current coronavirus pandemic — working from home, homeschooling, social distancing and ever-changing regulations. Global politics seem to be in shambles (haven’t they always been?).

Under all of this mounting socioeconomic pressure and the visibility that social media brings, we have seen a forceful upsurge of social justice movements (like #BlackLivesMatter) that are calling for greater accountability and real change on all fronts.

Minority groups are more likely to suffer from PTSD. — American Psychiatric Association
Image from Businesswire

Much research into the effects of the pandemic and the global exodus to remote work has already been done since 2020, with specific emphasis on the ramifications on one’s mental health through personal isolation, job loss and a lack of empathy from managers and co-workers.

It has become clear that work and home are no longer separate entities, and stress and anxiety cannot be left at the door to be dealt with (if at all) at a later stage.

The good news is that when we become aware of a problem, we’re able to start solving it. Managers and HR professionals are directly responsible for employees’ well-being at work, since the implications of ill mental health on workers’ motivation and productivity are glaringly evident.

Who needs your help right now?

According to the Psychiatric Times, certain groups of individuals have now met the qualifying criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as per the DSM-5 as a direct result of the pandemic:

  • People who suffered from COVID-19 illness and faced potential death;
  • People who have witnessed the suffering and death of loved ones or those whom they were caring for;
  • People who were informed about the death or risk of death of a family member or friend due to the virus; and
  • Those who have been overly exposed to the details surrounding coronavirus illness and death through the media or personal experience.

As a leader in your company you need to be sure that you stay informed about your employees’ personal lives. Of course, we’re not talking about what they did last Saturday or how much money they splurged online (frankly, that’s none of your business!). What we are talking about is knowing their circumstances and what they are dealing with right now.

As a leader in your company you need to empathise with what your employees are going through.

Perhaps Zandi is a single mom who is also looking after her high-risk parents, or James recently found out that his girlfriend’s 72-year old grandad has been hospitalised and isolated because he contracted COVID-19. These kinds of experiences are pivotal in people’s lives and can produce fears and anxieties that affect their social and work time.

What are some of the symptoms of PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is most often associated with war veterans, rape victims and neglected or abused children, but anyone who experiences a certain event as a trauma can suffer from PTSD. It’s normal to struggle with sleep, withdraw from people or be on edge after a difficult experience, however PTSD sets in when someone is unable to process the experience and move on — this can take weeks, months or even years.

You may not always be aware that your co-workers are living in a post-traumatic reality, but it’s good to be conscious of some of the signs of PTSD:

  • Reliving traumatic experiences. It may feel like the traumatic experience is replayed over and over in the person’s thoughts or nightmares, and it always feels as real as when it happened.
  • Event-triggered anxiety and avoidance. The person may show signs of fear and panic when faced with certain triggers that remind them of the traumatic experiences, for instance avoiding groups of people or the use of elevators.
  • Emotional dysregulation. Your co-worker may seem to be more emotional and unable to control their reactions compared to before.

At work, PTSD may manifest in decreased productivity, lowered performance, and/or more frequent absenteeism.

In 2016, experts estimated that about 7 or 8 percent of Americans suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives.
In 2020, 62% of adults in the US reported worsened mental health since COVID-19.
Image taken from Psychiatric Times

All the most recent studies show that the pandemic is being perceived as a traumatic event on a global scale, which means that each one of us needs to be more vigilant and caring to ensure that we are all able to cope and process our experiences and fears during this time.

What managers can do about PTSD at work

  1. Educate employees about PTSD. There is a stigma of ‘being weak’ or ‘mentally ill’ attached to having PTSD, which means most of us play down our experiences — especially when we’re struggling to cope — and are unlikely to reach out for help in time. Make sure everyone understands that it’s OK to need help every now and again, and that doesn’t mean their jobs are on the line.
  2. Foster a culture of positivity, empathy and appreciation. Gratitude has a big role to play in good mental health, and nurturing a company culture that is inclusive even of those struggling with their mental health is imperative. Keep celebrating everyone’s successes and rewarding them for good work with simple and sincere recognition messages and positive affirmations.
  3. Build relationships. The only way you’ll know what’s going on and how you can help, is if you keep the conversation going. You don’t have to chat every day or hang out after work — just keep a regular schedule of informal one-on-one’s, or try running a weekly check-in pulse survey to see how everyone is doing. Provide opportunities for employees to build relationships with each other, whether through playing a game before a meeting, setting up randomised coffee dates, or (if possible and safe) doing something fun outdoors together as a team.
  4. Be practical. Much of the anxieties surrounding the pandemic can be relieved by following regulations and providing employees with the necessary PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Adherence is key!
  5. Employee Assistance Programme. Consider implementing an EAP at your workplace to help employees on a short-term basis to work through any difficulties they may have. An EAP could include professional counselling services, health & fitness programmes, as well as managing the off-boarding of employees who have been furloughed or are going into retirement.
  6. Provide a platform for feedback and growth. Keep employees focused on moving up and forward. Coping with a crisis could stagnate your business, but often the best way to deal with difficulties is to go through them. So don’t stand still — setting goals and looking to the future can be a beacon of hope for your employees.
  7. Look after yourself. This may seem counter-intuitive, but you can only help others if you are healthy. If you feel you’re struggling with your mental health because of stress, burnout or depression, seek help first before you start loading others’ needs on your plate. Delegate some of your duties to co-workers who are able to carry the responsibility. Relying on your team is not bad management, it’s trust.
Image taken from Health Matters

In conclusion, your job as a manager or HR professional is more than reaching targets, implementing policies and reporting. You’re the go-to person for the employees you lead who need guidance and support. It’s up to you to ensure employees have the tools to cope with the stress of work, home and life in general in order for them to stay motivated to reach the company’s goals and keep moving forward.

“Never discourage anyone… who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”―Plato

Author Bio

A qualified artist (if you get such a thing) by training and a digital designer by trade, Sharné McDonald joined the Hi5 team in 2017 as a Happiness Hero. She currently holds the role of Product Marketing Manager and it’s one of her joys to delight customers and leads with great content, technical information and funny GIFs. She loves being a generalist and is currently completing a Masters degree in Art Education in her spare time.

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