BBC’s Bodyguard highlights PTSD in the workplace

Following the gripping finale of the popular thriller, Jane Wheeler outlines what employers should do if an employee is showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The treatment of PTSD in Bodyguard – experienced by the lead character, David Budd, following his military experience in Afghanistan – has polarised viewers: some found it a realistic depiction, while others said it was over-dramatised. What the series has done is get the condition ‘out there’ and being discussed. 

The NHS website describes PTSD as a reaction, experienced by as many as one in three, to a stressful, frightening or distressing life event. It can manifest itself weeks, months or even years after exposure to the event itself. It has a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, physical distress/sickness, nightmares and insomnia. 

One of the difficulties is identifying the condition in the first place. Many of the symptoms – such as irritability, avoiding colleagues and sudden outbursts – can be characterised by employers as anti-social behaviour or a poor attitude. This could lead to a performance management or disciplinary process, rather than tackling the underlying issues.

So what should an employer do if faced with an employee who has a medical condition, or is showing some symptoms that might be PTSD? There is no obligation for an employee to disclose if they have PTSD, although an employer might be on notice that there is a medical condition. PTSD will almost certainly be a disability under the Equality Act 2010. A disability is a medical condition that is long-lasting (has lasted, or is likely to last, 12 months or more) and has a substantial adverse impact on day-to-day activities. 

While there is no obligation to disclose PTSD, an employer encouraging someone to open up and talk about the condition is the starting point to improving things in the workplace – for that person and their colleagues. There are an increasing number of senior and influential individuals who have come forward with courage to tell their personal stories, but promoting a culture of openness at all levels is important to create an environment where all staff feel they can speak and be heard.

When put on notice that someone may have PTSD, employers need to equip themselves with an understanding of the condition. They don’t have to become experts and this fear, together with concern about intruding, can deter employers from finding out more. That may be through awareness training, but also through speaking with the employee and seeking expert medical advice. 

An employer is obliged to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the condition. Understanding the challenges, and respectfully making enquiries about PTSD and its impact, is the starting point to working out what adjustments to make.

Employers are obliged not to discriminate against a member of staff because they have a disability – but are also not permitted to discriminate because of something arising ‘in consequence of’ the disability. This may include an employee taking an extended period of sick leave as a result of PTSD and the employer taking disciplinary action as a result. 

A Google search of ‘Bodyguard’ and ‘PTSD’ revealed just one article, published in the Daily Express with the headline ‘What is wrong with David?’ I was struck by these blunt words: the clear message that there is something ‘wrong’ with someone who has PTSD. What the title does, however, is question and open up the conversation – and that, in my view, is the most important thing. 

Jane Wheeler is a partner at Hine Legal, a specialist employment law firm