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Managing Mental Health at Work – PTSD

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Please note the following article covers the topic of suicide and in particular events on the rail network.

Setting off on a positive note with this article it is worth referencing the increased awareness and consideration of mental health issues in the workplace and response by the business community. A number of dedicated campaigns are making a difference not least the effective collaboration between commercial and charitable organisations such as the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and London North Eastern Railway (LNER), more of this partnership below.

Unfortunately, with one in four of us likely to be impacted by some form of mental health problem in any one year the scale of the challenge remains huge.

In many cases, businesses are able to effect positive change by educating managers and staff so they are more aware of the signs and signals that may require a compassionate and empathetic rather than “man up” response. In some ways this internally driven education programme is the easy part, for many organisations, the challenges lie not only in supporting their workforce but being aware of and dealing with mental health issues of those impacting the day to day operations.

The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most commonly associated with servicemen who’ve seen active duty, but it can also occur domestically when emergency services deal with incidents such as that of the tragic events of Manchester Arena, Tower bridge or severe injury or death as a result of fire or road traffic collisions.

PTSD is identified as a severe anxiety disorder which manifests after an event or series of events, which results in psychological trauma. An imminent threat of death to the individual or others nearby may result in debilitating symptoms.

Symptoms of PTSD can include replaying the original traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of any potential triggers linked to the trauma and generally hypersensitivity around certain noises or visual stimuli.

Left untreated a sufferer may be more likely to be involved in a workplace accident, take long periods off work sick and potentially erratic, irrational sometimes aggressive behaviour that may result in dismissal. This could lead to a significant legal battle for the employer if the correct steps and support have not been offered.

One example of an employer that has identified the risks and need to support staff is the rail operator London North Eastern Railway (LNER) who cover 936 miles of track and carry passengers from London to Inverness and back each day of the week. The business employs 3250 staff in offices, depots, stations, onboard and at the headquarters in York.

This extensive and very busy network is, however, seeing a rather worrying trend which results in a tragic loss of life and major distress for the family and friends of the deceased but also those involved in the incidents. “Incident” is hardly a suitable word, what we’re referring to here is suicide and it’s on the increase.

In 2017-18 there were an estimated 292 suicides on the rail network across the UK which includes 43 on the London underground. This is an increase on the prior year and the trend is upward.

Mike Ross, Customer Relations Manager at LNER explained, “With Suicide being the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and 75% of all suicides being male, through our partnership with CALM we want to actively encourage those who may be going through a difficult time to seek support.” CALM stands for the Campaign Against Living Miserably and was first launched as a pilot by the Dept of Health in Manchester in 1997, rolled out to Merseyside and Cumbria in 2000, later Luton and Bedfordshire becoming a national charity in 2006.

The statistics relating to rail network suicides are quite shocking. In 2017-18 there were an estimated 292 suicides on the rail network across the UK which includes 43 on the London underground. This is an increase on the prior year and the trend is upward.

A disturbing development in addition to the rise in incidents is the location chosen. Historically such tragic events would occur on rural, remote stretches of the rail network but increasingly that is being swapped for occurrences close to mainline station platforms.

What many passengers fail to appreciate when taking to social media to complain about their chosen rail service delays is the far-reaching impact of suicide and the consequential effect with families, witnessing passengers and rail staff. From the driver who can often do little more than sound a warning horn to the crew who may also witness the death such events can be hard to recover from. But it doesn’t stop there, Mike Ross as the Customer Relations Manager at LNER has the unenviable task of talking to the recently bereaved families whilst also simultaneously dealing with the flack and subsequent knock-on effect for delays to subsequent trains on that route.

LNER take proactive steps with their staff and offer specialised counselling for those affected. Mike continued, “It can be difficult to determine the real impact of such events on for example an experienced driver, they may on the face of it seem unaffected but over time you may find behaviour and personality changes which can be clear markers for an underlying issue.” Men in particular, find it hard to address their problems or talk openly about their mental health. They believe that they will be branded as weak, going “cuckoo” or just not fit for the job and they do their best to “muddle’ through without calling on the help freely available.

What can employers do?

The culture of the organisation needs to be one of openness and honesty enabling staff to freely report any problem without fear of repercussion. This culture must start from the very top and Directors lead by example.

Often a sufferer of PTSD will feel isolated and very worried about the extent of their untypical feelings. This reaction is entirely normal and can affect anyone. Whilst managers and supervisors may want to try and help, talking about the problem may offer some support but in truth, a sufferer of PTSD will require specialist support and counselling.

If your organisation is one that is likely to encounter such tragedies it is advisable to train managers and supervisors on the signs and how best to communicate in such circumstances as a colleague displaying behaviours or symptoms matching that of PTSD.

If the member of staff has visited a GP, they may have been prescribed medication to improve mood via anti-depressants. Current thinking on the effective treatment of PTSD moves away from drugs however as GPs are often not specialists in trauma it is worth suggesting one to one counselling with a trained trauma therapy expert.

If you manage a staff member who has experienced a potentially traumatic event of which you are aware, and their behaviour seems to have changed, it could be a sign that they need help. When an employee does not seem to be returning to their normal attitude and behaviour after a few weeks following an incident, it is a good idea to open a dialogue about how he or she would like to be helped to recover. Be sure to notify a member of your team who can organise the most appropriate support at the earliest juncture.

If you have had direct experience of the impact of suicide or simply want to learn more about the work taken to support those vulnerable and at-risk you can contact CALM or also review the support to business via MIND.

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