The Great Divide: Workers With Known Risk of PTSD Fare Worse than Those Not at Risk

At the start of June, the U.S. saw the lowest number of new COVID cases since the start of the pandemic; businesses continued to re-open and wedding photos hit our social media feeds again. But underneath the recovery, PTSD risk rates ticked upwards; 17% of workers screened positive for risk of PTSD in June -- a 56% jump from pre-pandemic levels.

June’s data showed a clear divide: of those who were at risk for PTSD, there were declines in several other brain capacities, as well. 

Respondents who flagged at risk for PTSD saw an 18% reduction in focus, an 11% dip in resilience, and an 8% decline in planning capacity, as well as a decrease in memory capacity. Those at risk for PTSD also reported higher stress levels (57% more than those who did not screen for PTSD). This places a group that is already disproportionately suffering at elevated risk for further mental health burdens -- when external stressors are not resolved, stress becomes chronic and leads to anxiety and depression. In turn, those challenges can result in cognitive decline over time, creating a domino effect that demands early intervention.

This month’s data around PTSD, stress levels, and some reduced capacities is reflective of how our brains work as a whole; challenges with one brain function -- like cognition -- can affect capacities in other (seemingly unrelated) functions, like feeling and self-control.

Since PTSD has been the outlier (the only mental health challenge to stay above pre-pandemic levels consistently), it’s worth examining what that means for the workplace.


Understanding PTSD in the Workplace

The movie-driven image of PTSD -- the soldier returned from war who has constant nightmares -- is only one manifestation of what PTSD can look like. For some, it displays in more subtle ways.

PTSD tends to set in months after a trauma, and a public health crisis is no exception: a 2020 study showed that 30% of patients who survived a severe COVID infection had PTSD, with doctors and nurses showing even higher rates. For many who stayed home and avoided infection, the constant threat of illness, life-changing economic losses, and extreme social isolation were damaging to mental health (particularly to those with other mental health risk factors).

The various ways that PTSD affects the four brain functions inevitably translates to reduced workplace performance, in one or more ways. Cognitively, it can alter someone’s problem-solving capabilities, memory formation and retention. It can reduce attention spans and impair the ability to plan. PTSD sufferers often have difficulty sleeping, the effects of which carry over into the daytime. Within the brain’s self-control function, social connectivity can decrease, which can affect a professional’s ability to work with their team. 

PTSD can also increase the number of mistakes someone makes at work, and data shows it can extend the time they take to complete a task by 15%.

PTSD’s impact on the brain’s feeling, emotion, and self-control functions makes it harder to recover. For one, it diminishes the ability to deal with stress (within the feeling brain function). This is likely why employees who were at risk for PTSD also reported higher stress levels. (Learn more about the role stress plays in our mental health.)

To make things more complicated, PTSD sufferers often engage in emotional avoidance (which opposes our capacity to be emotionally aware), which adds complexity to the search for healthy coping mechanisms. 

All this is to say: mental health challenges like PTSD will not respond to disciplinary actions (an employee’s mental health crisis will not resolve itself upon issue of a PIP). A fear-based environment will create more stress, which in turn creates higher healthcare costs for employers. Instead, managers who want to create a healthy environment that fosters recovery and productivity should consider a foundational, evidence-based practice: empathy.

The Merits of Managing With Empathy

Empathy -- the effort to identify with another’s feelings and situation -- has several benefits in the workplace, which multiple studies have reinforced. It drives employee loyalty and creates a sense of psychological safety that makes it easier to cope with stress. And, an empathetic approach to leadership has been shown to boost productivity and overall employee wellbeing.

Last year, we outlined several ways management can establish an empathetic workplace. In addition to these strategies, it’s crucial that management provides effective resources to employees at risk of PTSD (as well as other mental health conditions). 

The Total Brain app offers a holistic compilation of stress management tools and neuroscience-based brain training games that address all four brain functions, which encompass capacities affected by PTSD. Emotion Booster and Emotion Match helps users identify their emotions, rather than practicing avoidance, while Self Regulate trains the brain to expertly regulate feelings. Think Focus promotes improved ability to deter distracting thoughts and concentrate on a task while Thought Tamer provides a pathway that challenges negative thinking. 

To learn more about how the Total Brain app can help employees better cope with mental health challenges (which translates to better performance at work), request a demo today.

Mental health is always in flux -- and by the end of June, Dr. Fauci sounded the alarm on the Delta variant, which could broaden the hurdles with which PTSD and highly stressed workers are already grappling. What June’s numbers show us is that it is far more effective to provide employees with the right mental health resources preemptively, before mental health challenges have had time to take root (and generate other issues).

At Total Brain, we believe in data-driven programs that will demonstrably help people improve their mental wellbeing -- and we invite you to join us in that effort. Don’t miss our monthly webinars where industry thought leaders gather to review the latest Mental Health Index data and discuss the mental health of working Americans. Register today.

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