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How best can we meet the challenge of being helpful and supportive to employees who may have experienced deep and lasting wounds from traumatic experiences?

Old emotional wounds can cause numbness, rage and anxiety, and may be invisible to the rest of the world. For example, when 1st Sgt. Louis McShane received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1947 after the Second World War, he remembers throwing his duffel bag over his shoulder, walking out into the sunshine, receiving a handshake and hearing the words: “Go home and get a job.”

Fifty years later, after his wife’s death, McShane broke down. He began to speak about the horrors he had heard and seen on the beaches of Normandy, where he witnessed comrades impaled by bayonets and others drowning as they tried to swim to shore wearing 90 pounds of gear during the Allied landing.

“I don’t know how I made it back alive,” he repeated. “I always carried a kind of guilt.”

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For years, McShane kept the burden of what he had seen to himself. His employers, family and even his close friends knew only that he had been in the army and that he was a workaholic when he returned. No one except Louis knew that he woke up most nights in a cold sweat. Working long hours was his way of coping with obsessive thoughts and nightmares.

Direct experience with traumatizing events has the potential to evoke a lasting stress reaction. And it doesn’t have to be war. Things like motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns, child or spousal abuse, and rape can shatter the sense of security and make the world feel like a hostile environment. Witnessing a death through murder, combat or disaster seems to permeate personal stability and have the most lingering emotional and physical effects, which may be accompanied by prolonged silence, even guilt, about the event.

Unrecognized and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is known to disturb physical health, emotional status and relationships with friends, family members and co-workers. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares or constant fear. Some sufferers say they feel “crazy” and worry that they will end up homeless. Military alumni suffering with PTSD describe being awakened night after night by dreams about exploding mortars and barking dogs.

If someone on your staff appears fearful, fatigued, depressed, easily provoked and/or prone to negative or reactive behaviour over a prolonged period of time, that person may be suffering from an unrecognized and untreated reaction to a traumatic event. They may choose to remain silent about their experience, or they may suddenly decide to speak. If they choose the latter, it’s important that you respond in an appropriate way. Here are a few best practices:

  • Recognize that people react differently to disasters and traumatic events. It may be challenging for you to hear about the events that terrified another person, but remember that this is their story and you cannot gauge another’s reaction by how you might have behaved. Avoid telling someone what they should be thinking, feeling or doing. If you are lost for words, it’s better to say something like: “It sounds like you did the best that you possibly could.” If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact and a squeeze of the hand if it’s appropriate.
  • Listen with unconditional regard if someone begins to share a past experience. Many people are fearful of how they might be judged by others. You can’t harm someone with kindness; but criticism at a vulnerable moment can be devastating and unproductive.
  • Remind them that talking may be difficult, but it’s OK. Especially if you are sure that you’re ready to listen.
  • Reassure them that you respect their privacy and will not share their personal information with others. (The exception to this is when the individual shares suicidal thoughts or ideas about committing violent acts. In these cases, you may be obligated to report what you’ve learned to a higher authority.)
  • Avoid patronizing and distracting behaviour. This might include recounting your own experience of traumatic events as if you understand exactly what they are feeling. If you have gone through a similar experience, it is appropriate to share—but don’t claim to “know” what the person is experiencing.
  • Acquaint yourself with grief counsellors and professionals who deal with PTSD. Be prepared to make a recommendation or referral, especially if thoughts of suicide are mentioned or alluded to. If possible, have names and contact information available. Treatment today of war-related PTSD includes group sessions, art therapy and combat-stress counselling. Participants say that being with people who have been through the same experience makes them feel more “normal.”
  • Believe in the power of listening and the importance of simple connection between people. Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the experience.

Remember, we are not so far away from the time when people were reluctant to seek help because of the stigma attached to psychological treatment and the fear that it could have a damaging impact on their career.

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When Louis McShane finally began to speak about what he had seen and experienced 50 years earlier, he discovered an echo. Others had been there, too, and he began to sleep at night.

In spite of the many ways we have to communicate in today’s world, it is still possible for people to feel that they hold on to difficult emotions in isolation. When your employees exhibit the signs of invisible emotional scars, there may be a story that needs to be told to a compassionate and concerned listener. And that just might be you.

Ruth W. Crocker, PhD, is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, Conn., where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories.

Do you have any experience in dealing with an employee or colleague with PTSD? What advice do you have for what to do—or what not to do? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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