We’ve previously discussed the importance of helping the military to return to work. Of the 1.5 million troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately one in every four is a “citizen soldier” serving in the ranks of the National Guard or the Reserves. In many cases, they will be returning to resume jobs at former employers.

As we’ve learned from the experience of returning vets in past wars, the transition is not always an easy one. Many who return are IED survivors with serious physical injuries such as amputations, burns, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Many others suffer from an array of behavioral health problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One recent Pentagon study identified that as many as one in three returning troops have mental health problems six months after their return. The study showed that the transition is even harder for citizen soldiers than for active-duty soldiers: “About 42 percent of the Guard and reserves, compared to 20 percent of active-duty troops, were identified as needing mental health treatment in two screenings. The first testing was immediately upon return from Iraq and the second six months later.”

Helping to ease the transition back to the workplace

The Disability Management Employer Coalition and several large insurers teamed up with military and veteran advisers to examine the challenges and opportunities facing returning veterans and to identify employer-based resources and strategies to help ease the transition. The group, calling themselves the Workplace Warrior Think Tank, has produced a useful guide for employers: The Corporate Response to Deployment and Reintegration Highlighting Best Practices in Human Resources and Disability Management * (PDF).

The following are among the group’s most important best practice recommendations:

  • Establish a Military Leave and Return Policy covering employees who are members of the Reserves or National Guard. A key component of that policy is to communicate the range of benefits and programs that apply, including provisions of the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which requires job protection for all employees who are deployed regardless of the size of the employer.
  • Inform civilian employees (such as those who work for defense contractors) who are assigned to work with the United States military overseas of the benefits programs available to them. In particular, employees should understand the federal Defense Base Act, which will cover them during their overseas assignment.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and behavioral health services to help returning employees (including members of the military and civilian employees assigned overseas) who have been diagnosed with or who are exhibiting symptoms of major depression, generalized anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Use good general disability management practices that apply, including:
    – maintaining communication during absences;
    – celebrating employees’ return to work;
    – giving employees adequate information about benefits prior to deployment;
    – allowing time to reintegrate after an extended absence;
    – considering accommodations to assist the employee’s return to productivity;
    – recapping changes while employees were gone;
    – establishing red flags to help supervisors identify potential problems; and
    – obtaining commitment from senior management to ensure that programs are given strong support and a cultural presence.
  • Offer sensitivity training to managers, supervisors and co-workers on issues and challenges faced by civilian soldiers during deployment and post-deployment.
  • Provide mentoring programs to link returning civilian soldiers with veterans in the workforce. The commonality of military experience may forge bonds among colleagues to support the successful reintegration of returning workplace warriors.

EAPs identified as a vital resource

The Workplace Warrior Think Tank stressed the importance of employers having not just an EAP, but one that is well equipped to address the full spectrum of behavioral health issues that are common to re-acclimating veterans, particularly PTSD and depression. In addition, the EAP must be poised to address the many family problems and stresses that can surface both during and after deployment. According to congressional testimony by Todd Bowers, Director of Government Affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 27% of soldiers now admit they are experiencing marital problems, and 20% of deployed soldiers say they are currently planning a divorce. And a CBS investigation points to a veteran suicide rate that is twice that of average Americans.

Employers must train supervisors and HR staff to spot warning signs for problems early and must have resources in place for referrals to appropriate help and support services. For employers who will have returning citizen soldiers, the next EAP renewal might be a good time to kick the tires and ensure that it is up to providing the serious support and mental health services that will be needed. The transition will not be a once-and-done matter, but a long-term issue that America’s employers will be dealing with over the next few decades.

*More information and a copy of the full Guide are available through the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

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