Returning to Work After a Traumatic Event

Getting up to go to work can be painful on a normal day. The idea of returning to work after a traumatic event is overwhelming and frightening for many people. However, there are many reasons to consider going back to work. Work can provide distraction, a sense of normalcy, feelings of belonging and self-worth, and financial relief.

This is not to say that working will be without its challenges. If you plan to return to the same position, chances are your employer is at least aware that you have been through a difficult time. You should consider talking with your line manager or human resources department about the expectations for you as you transition back into your duties.

If you are returning to the workforce with a new position, you are not required to disclose your post-traumatic stress disorder (or other) diagnosis to your new employer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) publishes guidelines on disability and accommodations. The guidelines state that you can request accommodations at any time. Therefore, do not feel pressured to disclose your circumstance right away simply for fear of losing accommodations later, should you need them.

It is up to you to decide when and how much you share with your employer or coworkers. However, you should keep in mind that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect your work intermittently over time. Common workplace challenges include:

  • Agitation/irritability
  • Disorganization
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue

You may find that you need to make adjustments in your workplace in order to perform your job and avoid aggravating PTSD symptoms. Don’t be afraid to seek reasonable accommodations so that you can continue working.

Federal Guidelines for Accommodations

Many employers will be understanding and will not challenge your request for accommodation. If your employer will not work with you voluntarily, however, you can seek reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA does not list conditions that can be classified as disabilities. Instead, it defines a disabled person as someone who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits major life activities. Major life activities include caring for oneself, sleeping, concentrating, thinking, communicating, performing manual tasks, and working.

The ADA provides protection both prior to and during employment. In order to be protected under the ADA, the individual must qualify for the job with the necessary skills, experience, and education, and be able to perform the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodations. The employer is permitted to request medical documentation to support the claim of disability.

A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment that does not create undue hardship on the employer (i.e., require significant expenditure of money or other resources). This includes accommodations that are disruptive or fundamentally alter business operations. The EEOC instructs employers to consider accommodations on a case-by-case basis, but does provide examples of reasonable accommodations. They include:

  • Allowing employees to take paid or unpaid leave
  • Redistributing non-essential job functions
  • Altering when or how an essential or marginal function is performed
  • Modifying arrival or departure times, providing a part-time schedule, or allowing rest periods during the day
  • Modifying workplace policies for the disabled individual, such as allowing the use of vacation leave without advance notice
  • Reassigning the employee to a vacant position for which they are qualified

Employers are permitted to suggest other accommodations, as long as the accommodations do not interfere with the employee’s ability to address his or her medical needs. For example, rather than allowing leave, an employer can redistribute work functions. The employer is required to return the employee to the original position once the need for the accommodation has ended. Again, employers do not have to provide accommodations that cause undue hardship or do not allow the employee to perform essential job functions. Also, employees are still required to meet performance and conduct standards.

Ideas for Accommodations

Keep in mind that EEOC guidelines state that you are allowed to ask for accommodations at any time during your employment. Whether you are planning to return or have been back for awhile, you can discuss adjustments to your work environment with your employer. Below is a list of ideas for accommodations that may be of benefit to individuals recovering from a traumatic experience:

  • Flexible start or end time/part-time hours
  • Telecommuting
  • Flexible leave (unpaid if necessary)
  • Flexible break periods
  • Access to a private room to practice relaxation techniques
  • Use of isolated workspace away from possible triggers such as loud noises
  • Allowance for personal telephone calls
  • Clear written communication regarding tasks, deadlines, expectations, etc.
  • Hold off on major changes to assigned duties
  • Redistribute marginal duties
  • Limit or eliminate travel
  • Allow use of headphones or white noise machines to help eliminate distractions
  • Access to devices to bolster memory or organize time-voice recorders, calendars, stopwatches
  • Access to a coach or mentor
  • Provide conflict resolution mechanisms

This article is not intended as legal advice. For personal counsel, please contact your human resources department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or an attorney.