Dealing with PTSD at work: Psychiatrist Atul Aswani says HR can help! Dealing with PTSD at work: Psychiatrist Atul Aswani says HR can help!
As per the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) report, nearly 38 million Indians suffer from some form of anxiety disorder that requires professional intervention.... Dealing with PTSD at work: Psychiatrist Atul Aswani says HR can help!

As per the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) report, nearly 38 million Indians suffer from some form of anxiety disorder that requires professional intervention.

One such anxiety disorder is PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition which if not treated on time can completely destroy an individual’s personal as well as professional life.

However, due to the stigma surrounding mental health, not many individuals seek help to deal with most anxiety disorders—especially a relatively lesser-known one such as PTSD. got in touch with Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr. Atul Aswani to give us insights into what causes this debilitating condition and how it can be dealt with at the workplace:

Dr. Aswani, please help us understand what causes PTSD?

A person usually develops PTSD after experiencing or witnessing an extremely stressful, scary or disturbing event.

While I was working in a government hospital, I came across four industrial workers that were displaying strong signs of PTSD. I found out that they had recently lost one of their colleagues due to a cylinder explosion at their work site. As they were the only people present during this accident, they had to gather the mutilated remains of their colleague’s body themselves. That whole incident was extremely traumatic for them.

There was another time when I was called into a corporate office for crisis consultation. I had to counsel three employees who had recently lost their co-worker to suicide. These three individuals were devastated to find out that their friend who had worked with them, and even partied with them that previous Friday had killed himself over that weekend. I noticed that these individuals were also exhibiting strong symptoms of PTSD.

Over the years, I have seen that people who have been in an accident or personnel who work in the emergency rooms of hospitals or first-responders at crime scenes are the ones who usually suffer from PTSD. Victims of abuse, rape, molestation or sexual harassment can also develop PTSD.   

What are the common symptoms of PTSD?

Common symptoms of PTSD include continuous discomfort, nightmares, palpitations and sweating. However, one of the key differentiating factors from other anxiety disorders is seeing flashbacks of the traumatic event. It’s like when someone sees a horror movie and that horror movie plays over and over again in their minds. In the same way, people suffering from PTSD frequently relive the traumatic event.

How can this disorder affect a person’s life?

Most people suffering from PTSD often have irrational thoughts. Let me explain it like this. For example, imagine someone has been bitten by a dog and has to get sutures and injections as treatment. This person will automatically be on alert each time they see a dog. But that doesn’t mean that all dogs are out to bite that person. People who have PTSD tend to have thought errors such as catastrophisation, which means that even if there is little negative in their life they take it as a huge negative.

For example, I came across a lady who fell down from a bus once. Now whenever she stands near a bus-stop and sees people trying to jump into a bus, she gets very panicky. That’s because she vividly remembers her accident. When asked if she knows of any other person who has fallen down from a bus, she says no one. This shows how catastrophisation is not an accurate picture of reality. Treatment can help people see that everything doesn’t have to have a negative end.

Another pattern of thought that comes to my mind is rumination. The term is derived from the activity that you see a cow or buffalo doing, where they swallow all their food and then bring it back up to chew it. As human beings, what we tend to do is select some of our most negative thoughts and bring them out to ponder on them. We literally lump the bad stuff in our heads together and press a replay button on them. This creates another problem because when we do this, not only do we think of only negative thoughts, we are also thinking of these negative thoughts continuously.

So, what is the recommended treatment for PTSD?

The treatment of PTSD could be divided into two sections. We first advice people suffering from PTSD to opt for medication which can make them feel at ease almost immediately. Personally I expect 20 to 30 per cent reduction in overall discomfort that a patient is suffering from, within a day. That’s because we now have at our disposal good anti-anxiety medicines that can reduce physical discomfort as well as the racing thoughts in a person’s mind.

We also have medication that can ensure that a person gets a good night’s rest without any worry. However, these medicines are available only on prescription. So, it is a good idea for people exhibiting symptoms of PTSD to visit a medical professional and get started on this medication for immediate relief. The advantage of immediate relief is that it demonstrates to the person that there is hope to overcome the situation.

In many cases, people stop treatment as they feel that medication is enough. But in reality it’s only the first step. That’s because after medication, there is extensive benefit from using a well-established form of psychotherapy we call CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In fact, it is so well-established that in the US, CBT and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) are paid for by insurance. In comparison, some other forms of treatment such as past-life regression therapy for example do not have the same scientifically validated effectiveness. So, CBT and REBT should be considered for anyone suffering from PTSD. 

What CBT assumes and has proven is that the emotions that a person is feeling are the direct result of the thoughts that go before these emotions. It implies that the kind of thinking that I engage in on a daily, weekly and monthly basis basically sets the emotional tone of my life. What it also suggests is that if I can change my thoughts, it can change how I feel.

How according to you can a working professional deal with PTSD?

One way to stop ruminating immediately is to stand up wherever you are and go for a walk or listen to music or use other perceptions of senses such as aroma of food to change what you are focusing on. Basically action through exercise or hobby, distraction through entertainment such as comedy and disputation in terms of eliminating negative thoughts by counter questioning are three ways in which an individual can overcome rumination.

In your opinion, how can a company’s HR support employees who suffer from anxiety disorders such as PTSD?

When people have PTSD they tend to become avoidant. Absenteeism and decreased productivity and focus at work are obvious outcomes of untreated PTSD in a person. So, this disorder can really mess with someone’s professional life.

I believe that the HR of an organisation can really help their employees by organising group therapy and even art therapy sessions for them.

In one of the corporates where I worked as a consultant, there was a sudden demise of an employee. So, we held something like a memorial service where we encouraged the other employees to speak up and not hold back their emotions. We told them that no one there would judge them and ensured that they felt comfortable expressing themselves.

A supportive atmosphere like this at work goes a long way in reducing anxiety. I believe that if a company’s HR is proactive and develops the right mechanism at their workplace, they can effectively help their employees deal with anxiety disorders such as PTSD.

Dr. Atul Aswani (MBBS, DPM, RCS) has over 7000 hours of experience in counselling and psychotherapy. Over the past 14 years as a psychiatrist, he has intervened in critical corporate office scenarios involving hostility and suicide and even worked with the US Justice Department to differentiate psychotherapy from criminality. Besides corporate consultation, Dr. Aswani also provides consultation to entrepreneurs, managers, home-makers and students.     

He currently also offers a Mini Course on Happiness via email. For further details on the course, please click here

For consultation, please call +91 9870377789 / +91 2265282280. Address: Ivy Clinic, Office No 7, 3rd Floor, Hi Life Building, Sir PM Road, Santa Cruz – West, Mumbai – 400 054. You can also connect with Dr. Aswani via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter

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