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Tackling PTSD >

With returning veterans struggling to find jobs, employers' concerns over post-traumatic-stress disorder appear to be part of the problem.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
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"Have you ever killed someone?"

It's something many military combat veterans are asked long after they've come home. Civilians don't typically ask such questions with malicious intent, says Chris Peck, vice president of human resources for the Atlanta-based United Parcel Service's East Region and a military veteran. Rather, he says, these inquiries are often borne out of simple curiosity, or a misunderstanding about what military service entails for the average individual.

"Sometimes, people assume that, because you were in the military, you were a ground-pounding soldier," says Peck, who served more than 20 years in the United States Air Force. "Not everyone was a foot soldier. But that perception is out there," he says, not just in the civilian sector, but in the corporate one too. And questions such as these can dampen or damage a returning veteran's psyche.

An even-more dangerous misperception gathering momentum among employers is the idea, says Peck, that "a veteran returning from combat or military service in general has post-traumatic stress disorder," that he or she will lose control at the slightest trigger. And that, he says, is "just not grounded in reality."

Fair or not, some experts suggest that recently returning veterans' job prospects have been further dimmed by persistent employer concerns about < PTSD > among job candidates with combat experience -- a troubling trend given the number of military personnel currently coming home in search of work.

Indeed, after a decade of war, American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. More than 20,000 United States military personnel have returned from Afghanistan, with plans for all U.S. troops to leave the landlocked country by the end of 2014. The recent drawdowns, combined with the anticipated end of the United States' military presence in Afghanistan, means record numbers of service members are and will be coming home, with many leaving active duty and hoping to join the workforce.

As it is, though, a slow-to-recover economy has contributed to sluggish job rates for returning service members, although unemployment figures dipped to 9.7 percent this past fall -- a two-point drop in comparison to the same time in 2011.

Lingering reservations about veterans and their potential for < PTSD > only compounds the situation, says Marcia Carruthers, president and CEO of the San Diego-based Disability Management Employer Coalition.

"I'd say that employers may be hesitant [to hire returning veterans]," she says. "A lot of that hesitancy has to do with a lack of education [on < PTSD >] and maybe on mental health in general."

Whatever the reason, there are indicators the corporate world has yet to overcome its trepidation over < PTSD >. Consider Employing America's Veterans: Perspectives from Businesses, a 2012 study from the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. The organization conducted confidential interviews with representatives -- from HR officers to CEOs -- from 69 organizations of varying sizes, in an effort to determine employers' reasons for hiring or not hiring veterans.

In the study, more than 70 percent of respondents noted veterans' leadership and teamwork as primary reasons for hiring them. When asked why companies do not hire veterans, however, more than 50 percent identified negative stereotypes as a factor. Unease about < PTSD > was a recurring theme, according to the study report.

"I think the only reason companies might be hesitant to hire veterans is because of < PTSD >," said one respondent. "They don't want to hire someone who is not only an unknown, but may be damaged, too."

Another respondent recounted hearing tales of "some veterans coming back and going on rampages," adding that "I have never had this happen to me personally, but I always wonder if it is a possibility."

A majority of the companies CNAS interviewed "didn't feel that way," notes Phillip Carter, senior fellow and director of the military, veterans and society program with CNAS.

"But enough did for it to be a source of concern, and a possible explanation for why veterans have struggled in the workforce."

Still, while experts say the extent of < PTSD > among veterans may be exaggerated, the impact of the disorder is a legitimate concern for employers and HR leaders tasked with helping employees deal with such traumatic experiences. Many in HR could benefit from learning more about its effects and providing the necessary assistance and services to help ex-military employees combat mental-health issues.

Fighting Perceptions

According to figures from The RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, nearly 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have screened positive for < PTSD >. It's important for employers to note, however, that that figure "doesn't necessarily mean that 20 percent of returning veterans are impaired," says Carruthers.

There is a "gap between perception and reality," adds Carter, who was previously an Army military police and civil affairs officer, having spent a year advising provincial police, judiciary and prisons in Iraq's Diyala province. "Today, fewer employers have personal experience with the military than in generations past, and that helps create a stigma around veterans. Unfortunately, some employers feel veterans are damaged by their service, and they stigmatize [vets] in the hiring process.

"Military service does not equal < PTSD >," says Carter. "Most veterans come home with some form of combat stress, but it's only a small amount, and even that will typically decrease over time."

Well-founded or not, employer concerns regarding < PTSD > are "very real," says Pat O'Leary, veterans' affairs manager with UPS. O'Leary joined the shipping giant in September 1978, just two weeks after finishing four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps that included a stint in Vietnam. Given his service time, he is innately empathetic to the challenges veterans face in finding jobs and settling into a civilian work environment. But, "I do hear from other HR people who say they're worried about < PTSD > in veterans," says O'Leary.

"What I hear is mostly a reflection of the media," he continues. "The media is doing a fine job of helping to ratchet up the level of awareness of < PTSD >, but it can go overboard. People sometimes think every veteran who comes back from the desert has < PTSD >, and as soon as a car backfires in the parking lot at work, [a veteran] will be hitting the deck. It goes back to a lack of understanding about the military in general, especially among those who have had no exposure to it."

The reality, Carter says, is that military experience often fosters valuable work skills, and hiring managers would be wise to focus on asking the right questions to help reveal how a would-be employee tends to react under stress, rather than focusing on his or her potential for < PTSD >.

"Hiring managers should be asking about candidates' service, to the extent possible," says Carter. "But certainly avoid questions that go too far, like 'Did you kill anyone?' They're inappropriate, and they're the kinds of questions that tend to make interviewees uncomfortable."

Though questioning ex-soldiers about their combat experience during interviews is not technically illegal, Kathy Dudley Helms, a Columbia, S.C.-based shareholder with labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, advises employers to follow normal American with Disabilities Act guidelines with regard to questions about military service and < PTSD >.

"That is, how can or would [an applicant] perform the essential functions of the position?" she says. "The potential for problems lie in a situation where a service person reveals he or she struggles with < PTSD >, and the interviewer begins to ask questions or discuss war experiences. It's a bit like asking someone how he or she happens to be in a wheelchair, and it's not wise."

Rather, says Carter, ask candidates with military backgrounds to recall when they worked in an ambiguous or chaotic situation, and how they worked to clarify their role and mission. Or, ask them to provide examples of how they've dealt with a difficult supervisor in the past. "In these cases, companies should look for personnel who demonstrate an ability to be resilient under stress," he says, "and have experience managing difficult situations and responding well to them."

"Veterans -- particularly those who have served in combat -- have experience working in ambiguous and chaotic environments, often with scant guidance beyond a simple mission statement," Carter says, "and will often have stories to tell about how they persevered and succeeded. Those stories can help companies evaluate their experience [without treading on shaky legal ground], and determine whether veterans will be a good fit for the organization."

Spotting the Signs

One key to better understanding the true impact of < PTSD > among veterans is to understand how it  affects the mind, says Erin Ashby, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Regis University in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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Ashby, who specializes in < PTSD >, trauma treatment and professional performance enhancement, recently conducted a study with Allen Cornelius, department chair in the school of professional psychology at the University of the Rockies, which found < PTSD > may cause significant memory and attention deficits. These deficits can manifest in the workplace in various ways, she says.

"People with < PTSD > often complain of having trouble remembering things like schedules and the tasks they still have to do," says Ashby. "These memory deficits are due to difficulty attending to tasks completely. Their attention is often elsewhere in their mind, but they don't realize they aren't fully focused. This may lead to mistakes in their work, if the work consists of complex tasks, or if they have the types of jobs that require a constant shift of attention from one task to another."

Given the seeming lack of awareness surrounding < PTSD >, it's fair to say that many veterans experiencing such symptoms may be reluctant to ask for help. For example, the United States Army estimates only 40 percent of veterans who screen positive for serious emotional problems reach out to a mental-health professional. Statistics from the RAND Corp. find only 30 percent of veterans with < PTSD > or depression seek assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system.

HR leaders may not be mental-health professionals, but such figures underscore the need for them to become adept at noticing employee issues developing that may be related to < PTSD >.

"For example, substance abuse is one big concern," says Peck, who has interviewed, hired and worked with countless veterans during his 28-plus years with UPS. (UPS is currently home to around 25,000 employees with military experience.) "Or you may see a fluctuation in job performance, or even workplace violence becomes an issue," he says. "Or, some problems may be attendance-related. You see people stop showing up, or they're frequently tardy."

A pattern of tardiness may be a result of disturbed sleep, "one of the biggest hallmarks of < PTSD >," adds Ashby. "So, an employee who seems tired, or is [often] late to work may warrant some counseling regarding their possible sleep issues."

Indeed, one of the HR leader's primary roles in dealing with < PTSD > is to help guide affected employees toward programs and services that can help them. Employers should be careful, though, to focus on the behaviors that result from < PTSD >, rather than the disorder itself, Ashby says.  

"This is a non-threatening way to approach the results of trauma rather than the trauma directly," she says. "Then, the employee can have [his or her] sleep addressed and treated, hopefully leading to further treatment if warranted."

On a day-to-day basis, supervisors can also set up work environments that help compensate for the deficits caused by < PTSD >, says Ashby. For example, providing workspaces that reduce distraction can improve focus, and offering flexible schedules may help employees with sleep challenges get the necessary rest, as well as attend treatment.

HR leaders must also help educate managers as to the necessity of these accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she says. "And make sure employees have resources such as manuals and policies available, to reduce their reliance on memories that may be overtaxed.

"Consideration of workstations is also important," adds Ashby, "as many employees with < PTSD > cannot have a cubicle or workstation where their back is to a door where people frequently come in and out. [Such set-ups may make employees with < PTSD >] significantly distracted and tense."

At UPS, the organization's employee assistance program "doesn't have a veteran-specific component, per se," says O'Leary. Rather, all employees have anytime access to an 800 number that connects workers to the appropriate professional programs and resources for addressing mental and physical health, including anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse and other issues associated with < PTSD >.

Ultimately, these programs and services have been invaluable in helping the organization understand the unique challenges its substantial ex-military population faces, and in providing assistance for veteran employees who need it, says O'Leary.

"There are different degrees of < PTSD >," he says. "Some really have serious issues with it. < PTSD is real and it needs to be dealt with. But there are tremendous resources out there to help" treat the sufferers and fight the untruths.

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