Tips for Managing Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in the Workplace

Nov 9, 2018

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Tips for Managing Veterans with TBI in the Workplace: 1. Learn, Don’t Assume; 2. Offer Flexibility; 3. Relax Time Constraints + Minimize Stress; 4. Allow Autonomy; 5. Unfavorable Behavior May Be Symptoms; 6. Job Supports + Accommodations Can Help

People can get traumatic brain injuries from many types of situations. Many returning veterans are returning to civilian life with TBIs, which may be the result of a jolt to the head, air pressure or sound waves from a blast, or a penetrating blow.

This disability can cause difficulties for returning veterans struggling to transition to the civilian life. So, in 2007, the US Army asked the National Organization on Disability to design a program to address needs of the most severely injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as they joined the workforce.

TBI is an umbrella term that spans a wide continuum of symptoms and severity. Some common symptoms may include difficulty handling emotions, impulsiveness, and difficulty filtering out distractions. Although sometimes their effects can influence mood and thought processes, TBIs are not mental health issues. TBIs can have wide ranges of effects—with challenges that are often mild and/or internal, so no one can even tell they are there.

On the upside, people with TBI can and do make progress, often recovering most or all of their abilities. Those with an impairment from TBI can still have many intellectual strengths that enable them to be highly successful in their work too.

For companies hungry for talent tapping into the veteran population is a smart strategy, since the men and women who have volunteered for today’s Armed Forces are a well qualified, well disciplined, and highly motivated group. They often have a strong sense of mission and purpose—assets that can be trained toward productivity in the workforce. The values of the military culture, the skills they practice in military service, and the lessons they learn in military teamwork are a great benefit to the companies that hire them.

If you are supervising a returning veteran or service member, ask questions about the skills and work experiences that he or she gained during military service, and to learn all you can about ways in which those skills and experiences might be useful in the current position.

Each workplace is like a culture, and any entry into a new culture has its challenges. Job accommodations and productivity support measures can be very effective in bringing their performance up to standards.

Use these tips to help welcome and support veterans with traumatic brain injuries in your workplace:

  1. Learn, Don’t Assume
    • First, you should not assume the service member does or does not have a TBI based on presentation, behavior, and thought processes. If a veteran does disclose a TBI, take time to educate yourself regarding symptoms and strategies to support them effectively. With the permission of the service member, you may want to train their immediate colleagues about what to do—and not—to build a supportive workplace.
  2. Offer Flexibility
    • Give opportunities for rest over an eight- or nine-hour shift, and allow time to attend medical appointments. Make overtime voluntary, so that employees have a choice and are in control of choosing when they can or cannot extend their working hours, based on their individual needs and goals.
  3. Relax Time Constraints + Minimize Stress
    • Avoid placing veterans with TBIs in a high stress environment, as they typically do not cope well with stressful or frustrating situations. Memory deficits are often an obstacle for service members and veterans with TBI, so they may be more suited to work that is not time dependent or requires multi-tasking.
  4. Allow Autonomy
    • Managers should provide clear and consistent direction and communication, but still allow the service member or veteran to feel in control of their workload. Typically, when given reasonable tasks and autonomy to do them in their own way, veterans with TBIs are more effective.
  5. Unfavorable Behavior May Be Symptoms
    • Consider that behaviors like irritability or trouble getting along with others may be effects of a TBI—rather than personality-based concerns. Consider whether the symptoms and behaviors may be triggered by managers or peers not understanding or accommodating the impairment. For instance, an employee with a TBI may become frustrated if their manager has not provided clear directions or consistent expectations.
  6. Job Supports + Accommodations Can Help
    • Supports like providing a mentor and offering ample job training can go a long way in supporting veterans with TBIs in the workplace. Some accommodations can be simple, like offering noise-canceling headsets to help with concentration. Managers should be approachable, but allow the employee to initiate the process if he or she needs additional help, support, or accommodations

It is important for veterans, as well as their family, friends, managers and colleagues, to understand TBI as a combat wound—not a personality disorder or mental illness. Managers and colleagues can ease the transition from military to civilian life by being supportive, encouraging self-care, and building workplaces that are flexible and welcoming.

Discover more strategies + resources to welcome and support veterans + service members with disabilities transitioning into the civilian workforce at NOD.org/veterans.

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