Support necessary in the workplace
Carol Boyer, policy advisor for the Department of Labor's Workforce Systems Policy Team, addresses The American Legion's PTS-TBI ad-hoc committee in Washington as Past National Commander William Detweiler, right, listens. Photo by Craig Roberts

Support necessary in the workplace

Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury don’t only impact the physical and mental health of the injured suffering from them. They can carry with them a stigma that makes getting hired or keeping a job difficult.

That is why the Department of Labor has created PTS and TBI initiatives that not only benefit sufferers of both injuries, but also educate their employers. During The American Legion’s PTS-TBI ad-hoc committee meeting in Washington on Jan. 25, Carol Boyer briefed Legion staff and volunteers on those initiatives.

Policy advisor for the Workforce Systems Policy Team within DoL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, Boyer briefed the committee on the office’s mission and on a presidential executive order signed last July that mandates the federal government hire more individuals with disabilities.

But Boyer devoted much of her presentation to what her department is doing to support the successful employment of veterans suffering from PTS and TBI. She said data her department has been provided show that nearly one in five veterans of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom suffer from depression or some other stress disorder, and that 19 percent of all servicemembers from the two campaigns say they might have experienced a TBI.

Through its America’s Heroes at Work initiative, the department aims to increase awareness of PTS/TBI employment issues among employers, the workforce development system, service branches, key military support systems, career centers and veterans service organizations like The American Legion. Another goal of the program is to create and raise awareness of resources that assist employers with accommodations for transitioning servicemembers and veterans with TBI or PTS.

“The more information the employer gets, the more coping strategies there are in place,” Boyer said.

The America’s Heroes at Work website features information such as:

  • Fact sheets and reference guides on PTS/TBI as they relate to employment;
  • Web-based training tools on making workplace accommodations for employees with PTS/TBI;
  • Promising practices for helping those with PTS/TBI succeed at work;
  • Veterans employment success stories; and
  • Links to additional PTS, TBI and veterans employment resources.
  • Common employer questions about returning servicemembers with TBI and/or PTS;

But Boyer said that using a word like “accommodations” can be stigmatizing. “The word ‘accommodation’ can be perceived by co-workers as a favor,” she said. “It’s not an accommodation, but a reasonable modification.”

Boyer said that support from employers can go a long way toward helping treat employees with PTS or TBI. “Employment is a great recovery tool for mental disorders,” she said. “It’s very important in the recovery of men and women who experience TBI and PTS.”

Boyer said modifications that employers can make don’t have to be expensive or complicated. They can be as simple as allowing flexible scheduling or modified break schedules, providing leave for counseling sessions while allowing phone calls to doctors and others for necessary support, allowing employees to work from home and providing flexibility when it comes to performing job-related tasks.

“Most of these are low-cost or no-cost,” said Boyer, who also suggested allowing those same employees to listen to soothing music through ear plugs and allowing white noise or environment sound machines in the workers’ area.

Boyer also said that, unfortunately, mental-health issues only arise in the workplace when a crisis occurs. One way to avert those situations, she said, is through open communication and informed attitudes about the conditions through disability awareness training and similar education.

A clear line of communication between employer and employee also is needed. Boyer said employers should provide praise and positive reinforcement while also developing clear expectations of responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting performance standards.

“PTS or TBI isn’t what’s wrong with you,” Boyer said. “It’s what happened to you.”