PTSD, Workplace Safety Questions Jump After Incident in Afghanistan

With an emphasis on practical strategies to improve productivity and performance, and limit potential liabilities, Bulletin to Management™ concisely analyzes new developments in employment and human resources management.

By Rhonda Smith  

Recent reports about a U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan have sparked concern among employers and raised the issue of returning veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Officials at a consulting service funded by the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy told BNA March 22 that news of the tragedy led to an uptick in calls from employers concerned about workplace safety.

Accommodations Available

Beth Loy, a principal consultant with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free, confidential consulting service based in Morgantown, W.Va., said one of the most difficult challenges for employers involves having to deal with misconceptions and stereotypes about veterans and the possibility that they are affected by PTSD.

“When something happens like what recently happened in Afghanistan …employers tend to get afraid,” Loy said. “But oftentimes PTSD is very easy to accommodate.”

For example, an employee diagnosed with PTSD might need an accommodation as simple as an electronic scheduler, a noise-cancelling headset, or sound barriers placed around a cubicle, she said.

“Many individuals with a diagnosis of PTSD work without any type of accommodation,” Loy said. “If an employer contacts us, we can talk about myths, stereotypes and say, ‘Here is [an accommodation] that was low-cost and easy to implement. It's not as difficult as you might think.' ”

Prevalence of PTSD

PTSD is common among military veterans, according to America's Heroes at Work, a DOL project that addresses employment challenges faced by returning military service members and veterans living with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

The organization noted on its website that data from the Rand Corp. suggest about one in five service members who return from deployment operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have symptoms of PTSD or depression.

More generally, America's Heroes at Work said studies suggest about 8 percent of the U.S. population, or about 24 million people, will develop PTSD at some point in their lives.

Legal Protections

Ilyse Schuman, a shareholder in the Washington, D.C., office of Littler Mendelson, told BNA March 21 that based on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded the definitions of what is considered a disability, “PTSD is very likely to be covered under the [amended] Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, employers should make sure they are … compliant with all of its requirements.”

In the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Veterans and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Guide for Employers, a revised version of which was issued last month, EEOC noted that “it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a veteran because he has PTSD, because he was previously diagnosed with PTSD, or because the employer assumes he has PTSD.”

Shawn Kee, a partner at Jackson Lewis who works in offices in Denver and Stamford, Conn., told BNA March 21, that employers' obligations with respect to the treatment of military veterans are broader under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act than they are under the ADA.

“Employers need to be careful,” warned Kee, a lieutenant colonel and attorney in the U.S. Army Reserve. “When you have someone returning from military leave with a disability, the first thing employers should realize is they may have obligations that go beyond what they typically had trained for under the ADA. And those obligations can be pretty significant.”

Kee recommended that employers update their training programs related to recruiting and hiring to specifically mention issues related to military members who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other suggestions for employers when it comes to veterans and PTSD-related issues include:

  • Avoid jumping to conclusions. “It's very important for employers not to generalize but base their employment decisions on accurate medical information on each individual,” said attorney Linda Carter Batiste, a principal consultant with JAN.
  • Tailor accommodation procedures to each employee's specific needs. “JAN offers specific accommodation suggestions but it's really a case-by-case approach with any accommodations,”Batiste said.
  • Be sensitive. “A few years ago PTSD was called ‘shell shock.' There was a stigma attached to that. The military went to great strides to change the way people look at that trauma. It is an injury as opposed to a mental disorder,” said Jeff Bacon, executive director of the Wyakin Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit in Garden City, Idaho, created in 2010 to assist severely wounded veterans who want to attend college.
  • Be honest. “You do [veterans] a disservice by assuming something,” Bacon said. “If you have a question, ask them directly, especially after you've hired them. While it's not appropriate to do this before they are a member of your organization, I think if you have a veteran in your organization it's OK to ask them about their experiences.”

By Rhonda Smith  

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