Work-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be very challenging to deal with, but there are ways to manage it more effectively.
PTSD can develop in response to witnessing or experiencing very shocking, extreme or sudden events. This can include events that happen at work, such as severe accidents and injuries, sexual harassment or assault, bullying, emotional or physical abuse or discrimination.
It’s a common misconception that PTSD can only occur for workers such as paramedics or police officers. While these professions pose a greater risk of developing PTSD, it can also develop in professions that are generally considered ‘low risk’ where a traumatic event has been experienced. Events don’t have to be life-threatening to be considered traumatic.
Here’s how to know if you might be experiencing work-related PTSD, and what to do if you are.
What are the signs I might have work-related PTSD?
If you’ve been through a traumatic event at work, it doesn’t always mean you will develop PTSD. While there are signs and symptoms common to PTSD, it’s always best to speak to a health care professional for an assessment, as it can be experienced differently by everyone.
To be diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic event, you must have experienced the following symptoms for at least one month after the event:
- Reliving the traumatic event, such as through distressing memories, dreams or flashbacks of the event. These reminders can cause strong emotions and physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic attacks.
- Avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event.
- Mood and thought changes, such as trouble remembering parts of the event, negative beliefs, feelings of guilt, fear or shame, low mood, or feeling detached.
- Physical and behavioural changes, such as feeling anxious or irritable, acting recklessly, having trouble sleeping or concentrating.
How do I treat work-related PTSD?
It’s important to talk to a health care professional if you are concerned about work-related PTSD. A GP is a great place to start, as they can give you helpful information and connect you with relevant support services or mental health professionals who are experienced in trauma-informed care.
Some treatments that can help with work-related PTSD include:
- Trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns.
- Eye Movement and Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) – a therapy technique that involves moving your eyes in a specific way while you process traumatic memories.
- Exposure therapy – involves gradual exposure to memories of the event, including focusing on and describing the details of the event.
- Medication such as antidepressants – often taken in combination with therapy.
Learning strategies and tools to help you relax when you are getting anxious can also be very helpful. These strategies include:
- Telling yourself that you’re safe right now and that the trauma is not happening anymore.
- Learning ways to soothe your mind and body during flashbacks or intrusive memories.
- Practicing grounding techniques such as focusing on your breath or five senses.
Getting support at work
Depending on the nature of the traumatic event, it may be necessary to speak with your employer about what has happened – especially if the working environment is not currently safe. You may need to take time off work to focus on your recovery.
You might be entitled to access resources and support through Safe Work Australia, a national body that supports workers to access a health and safe working environment. You may be entitled to make a Workers’ Compensation claim for psychological injuries in some situations. For more information, visit the Safe Work Australia website.
If you think you may have PTSD after a traumatic work-related event, it’s really important to not dismiss your own experience. Getting professional support and learning how to soothe yourself when you’re experiencing symptoms can make all the difference in your recovery.
Effective medical, community and psychological treatment is available, and a person who is living with work-related PTSD can live a fulfilling life.
SANE offers a range of free support services for people over 18 years of age with complex mental health needs and their families and carers. Visit sane.org/get-support to choose the supports that work for you.
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If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, call 000 or visit your nearest hospital. For support with suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
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