Coming Home

How employers respond to military returnees, including those with mental-health problems, can greatly impact the re-integration process.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006
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Michael Wisner's two military deployments were as different as night and day. A Marine reservist since 1993, he's been called up twice to serve in Iraq. The calls, however, came during his tenure with two different employers, and the ways in which they treated the calls, his service and his re-entry into the workforce help illustrate the vast spectrum of employer responses to the military.

Duty's first call came in June 2003, when Wisner was working as the director of a construction development company in Chicago. His supervisors neither approved of nor encouraged the call.

"They tried to get me to get out of going," Wisner says, adding that his company -- which he asked not to name -- wanted to use contacts with local members of Congress to help pull strings. Wisner, however, would have none of it. "I didn't want to do that," he says. "I had my obligation to the country and to other Marines, and there was no way I was going to bail out."

Wisner's firm did not equalize his pay or benefits while he was on active military duty. Within six months of returning in October 2003, he was looking for a new job because his relationship with his employer had soured. Not only did Wisner's superiors not appreciate his insistence that he fulfill his military duty; they hired another person to do his job while he was away. "That also created conflicts," he says.

When an opportunity arose for Wisner to join Home Depot's store leadership program in Chicago, he switched jobs, never imagining he would be sent to Iraq again. However, after joining the Atlanta-based home-improvement chain in April 2004, he was called up on June 1, 2004.

The difference in his new employer's reaction to his deployment from his former one was startling. Home Depot agreed to equalize his pay and benefits during his service. "This really helped my family," says Wisner, who has a wife and two young children. During his deployment, he received frequent e-mails from Home Depot keeping him informed as to his benefits, including updates on enrollment periods.

At holiday time, Home Depot's CEO, Robert Nardelli, sent a letter to Wisner's wife thanking her for her husband's service to the country. And, even though Wisner had missed most of the year, the company paid 100 percent of his annual performance bonus.

When Wisner returned to Home Depot in October 2005, the experience was "seamless," he says. The human resource department eased his re-entry, and even allowed him to relocate to Tulsa, Okla., to be closer to his family, which was living there by then.

"Human resources didn't miss a beat and I have been treated phenomenally since I've been back," he says. The experience has made him extremely loyal to his company. "In the next year to 18 months," he says, "I will transition into a store in Tulsa in a co-manager role, and hope to manage my own store in the future. I'll be responsible for handling 250 to 300 people and a $25 million budget, which was very similar to what I did in the military."

The Transition Back

Wisner's experience helps illustrate the wide divergence of company responses to employees getting the call. Unprecedented mobilization of the National Guard and Reserve units has put increased demands on firms and their human resource professionals. According to Employers United for a Stronger America, there were more than 100,000 men and women in the Reserves and Guard on active duty in May 2006.

Stepped-up use of the National Guard and Reserves in combat areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan has created challenges for HR since employees who are active in those units can be called to active duty at any time with little or no advance notice.

Even more challenging to HR is the process of transitioning these workers back into the workforce when their tour of duty has ended. Such a task is further complicated when the employees return from active military duty with either physical disabilities or emotional problems such as post traumatic stress disorder.

Lately, HR professionals throughout the country have been contending with the mental-health effects on U.S. military personnel returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deployment and exposure to combat is known to increase the risk of PTSD, major depression, substance abuse, functional impairment in social and employment settings, and the increased use of health-care services.

A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that 17 percent of soldiers and Marines who returned from Iraq screened positive for PTSD, generalized anxiety or depression. According to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 35 percent of combat duty in Iraq, in particular, has been associated with increased use of mental-health services. Of the many Iraq war veterans who accessed mental health services within a year after returning home, 12 percent per year have been diagnosed with mental-health problems.

Having an employee return to a firm after being injured while on active duty can have a real impact on a business. Under both the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to re-employ and make the necessary accommodations for disabled returnees, including those with PTSD.

When employees return from active military duty with PTSD, there are a number of issues HR may have to address, says Denise Curran, a clinical therapist with ComPsych Corp. in Chicago. When returning soldiers develop PTSD, it often leads to increased absences and perceived threats when superiors criticize job performance, she says. PTSD can also lead to employees not getting along socially, not easily engaging with co-workers and overreacting to situations. Furthermore, Curran adds, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol can become an issue.

HR professionals, says Curran, need to educate themselves to recognize the symptoms of PTSD and refer employees to their employee assistance programs to get the help they need. "If you see personality changes or an overreaction to people or a situation, human resources can come in and recommend the EAP to the employees and the family for counseling," she says. Early detection and early treatment lead to the best results, she adds.

Helping the Disabled

Home Depot has a program to ease the transition of military personnel back into the workforce, including those who return with disabilities. Returnees need to know that support exists to help them in the transition, says Dennis Donovan, executive vice president of HR for Home Depot. All returnees are given a packet which details all phone numbers, paperwork and contacts needed for re-entry, says Donovan. Returning vets are also guided to the EAP to help them psychologically re-enter the workforce. "The transition back to work after being on active duty in a war zone is not easy," says Donovan, "and we want them to understand what to expect from themselves behaviorally."

But tracking returning disabled veterans is also not easy. Legally, returning soldiers cannot be forced to disclose their disabilities, says Donovan. And, while it may be apparent to a local HR manager that a person is disabled, he says, it is virtually impossible for the corporate office to track veterans unless they self-disclose. Home Depot currently employees 1,300 veterans who self-disclose that they are disabled, he says, adding that he thinks the actual numbers are significantly higher. On a corporate level, he says, you can only base statistics on those who voluntarily disclose their disabilities.

Re-entry of disabled veterans at Home Depot is handled on a case-by-case basis, says Donovan, adding that he is not personally aware of any soldier returning with severe injuries. Normally, he says, accommodations are made by HR professionals in individual stores, usually following a consultation with a doctor.

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When employees return from military deployment with physical injuries or emotional issues, they are treated like any other employee returning to work in similar situations, says William Behrendt, assistant vice president of human resources/customer services and diversity for Union Pacific Railroad, in Omaha, Neb. GI Jobs magazine named Union Pacific Railroad the nation's top Military-Friendly Employer for 2005. Union Pacific generally has had 80 to 120 of its 50,000 employees on active military service at any given time.

The company has 23 return-to-work managers who transition employees back into the workforce when they return from active duty. The managers are outside contractors who screen for injuries or emotional problems that could impact their job performance, says Behrendt.

If employees self-disclose their injury or PTSD, or if such conditions are picked up during the assessment, the return-to-work manager then decides whether they're ready to return to work, and if so, what type of work and with what specific accommodations, if necessary.

Sometimes, accommodations are not appropriate. For example, says Behrendt, who declined to discuss any specific employee, conductors or engineers require 24/7 availability and employees must be on-call. Workers in these positions must be able to move equipment and work in all weather conditions. If an employee who formerly held one of these positions returns to work, and if the assessment reveals issues for which accommodations cannot be made, then alternative work will be found.

There is a huge responsibility on the part of the company, says Behrendt, to make sure employees who are running locomotives or other train-service jobs are prepared to return to work. "We would not, however, keep anyone from the job, and if there are limitations, we would provide accommodations," says Behrendt.

Union Pacific has no centralized database that tracks workers who return to the company from active military service with PTSD or physical injuries. Workers who either self-identified or are determined through assessment to have PTSD are referred to the company's EAP, which gives them access to a variety of mental-health professionals. The company's HR department, however, is very involved in the process of re-integrating returning employees when their military service ends. The Health Services Department, which is part of the HR function, handles the return-to-duty process for all injured employees.

In addition to helping the injured employees, some companies are now taking steps to prepare co-workers in advance of the employee's return by bringing in counselors, says Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs, in Roswell, Ga. Daywalt is a retired Navy captain who spent seven years on active duty and 23 years in the Navy Reserve.

"It's incumbent on human resources and company leadership to work with employees, counsel them and prepare them for what to expect," he says. For example, some firms have HR meet with co-workers prior to the injured soldier's return. HR discusses how the war injury affects the returning individual, how co-workers should respond and what they should to do to assist the wounded returnee. While these meetings are generally run by HR staff, says Daywalt, he knows of one firm that brought in a psychologist to speak with office staff. And, of course, any necessary accommodations are made, including ramps, special chairs and so forth.

Lee Memorial Health System in Cape Coral, Fla., had a soldier who returned with PTSD, says Kristy Rigot, director of human resources for LMHS. The employee was referred to the EAP and was set up for meetings with the hospital system's Spiritual Service People -- essentially chaplains who are kept on staff.

Regardless of the issues, HR will need to contend with them for some time. With new interest and efforts to patrol U.S. borders mounting in Washington, the dependency on the National Guard and the Reserve shows no signs of waning. Addressing the emotional and physical fallout of war will bear heavily on HR in the near future. "As the war keeps going on and there's more death," says Curran, "you'll be seeing more PTSD."

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