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PTSD can affect civilian hiring - here's how to manage it on the job

Feb. 19, 2014 - 03:43PM   |  
Veterans don't have to disclose PTSD to a potential employer, and sometimes speaking up can work against them.
Veterans don't have to disclose PTSD to a potential employer, and sometimes speaking up can work against them. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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When applying for a job, it’s hard to know whether an employer will be sympathetic to the needs of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, but there are signs.
Some companies are known to be active in recruiting people who have served. They’ll likely be sympathetic to veterans’ military needs. Others take an active role in trauma-related issues. In Savannah, Ga., for example, volunteers from aircraft company Gulfstream support Faith Equestrian, which delivers therapeutic riding lessons and activities to those with PTSD and other conditions.
Often, it is the involvement of upper management that distinguishes a firm as being especially understanding of PTSD issues.
For instance, New York technology firm Sharp Solutions runs an aggressive recruitment and training program for veterans, and CEO Karen Ross said she wants to make sure that those with PTSD succeed when she sends them out to client sites.
Her PTSD veterans work in groups of three. “The most important thing is they have someone else there who can see the telltale signs, someone they can turn to,” she said.
When issues do arise, she takes a personal interest. “I deploy this person to a client site, and if they fall apart with this client, it’s in my best interest to stay involved,” she said. “I have had a veteran text me saying they were having issues on the site and I changed my schedule and jumped downtown and we talked. That’s all they want sometimes is to talk in an environment they know is safe.”

When special ops Sgt. Travis Cox exited the Marines in 2011, he worried that his post-traumatic stress, the result of a two-year tour in Iraq, might interfere with efforts to find and keep a job. But it didn’t turn out that way.

He landed a job first for a university president and then for the San Antonio Spurs, where sympathetic bosses helped him thrive despite his disorder. The Spurs “is an organization full of patriots, and so it never got brought up in the interview. When I did have direct conversations with my supervisor, he was very understanding,” Cox said.

Now he’s a sales manager for 5.11 Tactical, which provides gear to the law enforcement community. “My boss is a veteran, our CEO is a veteran, so we are a military- and law-enforcement-rich company,” he said. Here again, his PTSD hasn’t held him back.

Not everyone is as lucky.

Some 24 percent of veterans feel companies avoid them because of mental health concerns, according to a recent study by Prudential and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. How do you beat those odds, find a job, keep it and get what’s fair from unfair employers? Here’s what the experts say:

Loose lips?

You don’t have to disclose PTSD to a potential employer, and sometimes speaking up can work against you.

After Cpl. Michael Liguori left the Marine Corps in 2006, he applied for about 100 jobs. He has no way of knowing whether his public advocacy on PTSD issues scared off employers, but the fact is he landed only a few interviews, and those companies seemed to take a lot of interest in his condition.

“Was it because I had admitted publicly that I had PTSD? Was it because I had spoken publicly about these things? I think these things may have come back to bite me,” he said.

Eventually he took a job with Unite US, an online support resource for veterans, an obviously supportive environment.

This doesn’t mean former troops should clam up entirely. Rather, an important element of managing PTSD in the workplace is communicating with supervisors about your condition.

Making needs known

PTSD sufferers may have special needs. Maybe crowded rooms are a problem, or loud noises. You may need quiet time or flexible work hours. To get these needs met, you have to make them known.

The first step is to get a letter from your health care provider, something to document that you have a legitimate need that requires specific remedies, said Alix R. Rubin, whose Pine Brook, N.J., law firm is active in PTSD issues. “Your employer is entitled to that medical documentation before they have to do anything,” she said.

What does the employer have to do? Basically, follow the Americans with Disabilities Act. While PTSD is not protected under ADA, standard practice is for ADA standards to apply.

What can you ask for? It’s called “reasonable accommodation,” these being steps the boss can take to meet your need without turning things upside down. Suppose you need a change in shift in order to make doctors’ appointments. If another shift is open, the employer should do it, said Scott M. Behren of Behren Law Firm in Weston, Fla. If you need a quieter office and there’s one available, it’s reasonable to ask for that.

But there are limits. If your condition calls for quiet, a job on a factory floor cannot reasonably accommodate your needs.

Of course you can ask for any form of accommodation, but the result will often be at the employer’s discretion. “They are not required to give you a completely different job. Sometimes they will transfer you to a completely different position, but they do not have to,” Rubin said.

Seeking remedies

Sometimes an employer will give nothing at all, making no accommodation for existing employees or making it clear that a veteran won’t be hired because of his special needs. There is remediation available.

For Cox, the solution begins with managing his own condition: getting treatment, staying on top of his ailment. “You need to take accountability; you need to take appropriate steps to work through it,” he said. “If you are taking those actions in every step of your life, it’s much easier to take those steps as far as employment goes.”

If you have done all you can to be on your “A” game and the boss still isn’t being fair, complain up the line, and when that isn’t enough, look for legal help. Find a lawyer to help draft a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Behren said.

Remedies may include reinstatement if you’ve been fired, back pay, a financial settlement and even damages for emotional distress for documented psychiatric injuries.

While the law may be on your side, the fact remains that PTSD can impede both a job search and a successful career. “People hear things or they just automatically assume these soldiers are just crazy people,” Liguori said. “They assume things, because they don’t really understand.”

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