Remote work could be silver lining of pandemic for some veterans, including those with PTSD

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The global coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented increase in remote work arrangements for Americans –– a Gallup survey conducted in early August revealed that more than 30 percent of American workers are mostly or completely remote, and record levels of cases and hospitalizations may keep people working from home for the foreseeable future.

Global War on Terrorism-era veterans stand to benefit from this shift, according to experts and veterans interviewed by Military Times.

As of October, recent veterans currently enjoy a lower unemployment rate — 6.2 percent — than the general population. But for the estimated 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experience PTSD symptoms in a given year, and for veterans navigating the complex Veterans Affairs scheduling and rating process even for other conditions, an in-person office environment can pose significant challenges.

“Work from home may be helpful to somebody with PTSD because it eliminates environmental irritants…that can have nothing to do with getting your job done,” said Carrie Elk, a therapist specializing in PTSD treatment and founder of the Elk Institute for Psychological Performance & Health, in a phone interview with Military Times. “Sometimes folks with PTSD have a lower threshold for frustration or agitation” and that can make them less comfortable and productive in a traditional work environment.

Non-profit groups supporting veterans employment initiatives both confirm the increase in remote positions coming available and their benefit for veterans needing a more flexible or PTSD-friendly work environment.

“Since March, we’re seeing a lot more of the work from home, work remote types of jobs becoming available,” said Bryan Rollins, national director of the Wounded Warrior Project’s Warriors to Work program, in a video interview. Rollins oversees a team of 42 that works “one on one” with wounded or disabled vets and hosts larger events with the goal of helping them find employment.

Rollins says that out of the approximately 1,400 hires their job board has facilitated since mid-March, approximately 20 percent – or around 280 – have been in permanent remote positions. Other employers have adapted to the pandemic by making new positions temporarily remote, he explained, and even federal agencies have cut back on the red tape that previously restricted telecommuting.

As for why the positions are beneficial to the veterans he serves, Rollins cites the potential reduction in distractions from an in-person working environment as helpful for vets with PTSD, as well as geographic flexibility enabling remote-employed veterans to live near a support system or any specialized medical care they may need.

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Military Times reached two veterans hired for remote work since the start of the pandemic to discuss their experience thus far.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this”

Retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Busby poses for a photo while on deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. (Courtesy photo)

Brady Busby, a retired Army signals intelligence chief warrant officer, recently started working for SelectQuote, an insurance company. In a video interview, Busby said he deployed seven times during his Army career, including three where he was assigned or attached to special operations forces.

After severe PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, and a back injury forced him to retire from the Army in 2012, Busby had difficulty managing his symptoms while transitioning to a civilian career. “I have flashbacks; I have uncontrolled emotions sometimes. If I’m in a crowded area, I can’t really focus on any one thing too long,” he said.

Busby’s oldest daughter died by suicide in 2018, exacerbating what he described as “complex PTSD.” After graduating from the University of Colorado in 2015, he worked part-time as a fly-fishing guide, he said.

His daughter’s death led him to move to Arizona just before the start of the pandemic, he explained. He struggled to find full-time work until SelectQuote hired him for a fully-remote position in May.

If the job weren’t remote, he said, “I wouldn’t be able to do this.” He worries that the stress of a difficult Phoenix commute and being in an in-person workspace would affect his ability to connect with clients and be successful.

He credits his new work with “letting [him] help people” and “giving [him] more of a drive.” “I’m actually doing a lot better mentally now that I’m a subject matter expert in a different field.”

“It’s like stars aligned”

Recently-retired Navy veteran Kenneth Bond landed a remote job as a senior consultant for Deloitte in May after watching traditional opportunities dry up at the onset of the pandemic.

Remote work has allowed Bond, who was a Navy supply officer and budget analyst, to relocate post-retirement to be closer to his family “support system” in Texas. He also credits the work arrangement for giving him the flexibility to meet his personal and medical needs.

“[In Texas,] my family and I can create a lifestyle balance that supports my engagement with Wounded Warrior Project, the VA medical system, and a few other things that are on my plate,” he explained. The systemic shift to remote work was “a game-changer” that made the job search much easier from Texas.

Bond explained it would be a challenge to balance his medical needs and family needs with a traditional in-person consulting job. “I can do [my job] from the comfort of this room. I don’t have to travel…I don’t have to be away from my family. And, frankly, I don’t have to be in a…business office where tons of people are coming and going.”

He said an in-person job “may have been a non-starter,” as a result. It took him more than three months to coordinate his VA care for his post-service disability and get settled following his move. Ironically, Bond’s team works with the VA, according to a report published by Deloitte.

“Being able to [work] remotely for Deloitte, it’s like stars aligned,” Bond concluded. “The future of work is here now.”

The limits of remote work

Remote work may have one potentially serious drawback for veterans, though.

Veterans who work from home may be at greater risk of social isolation, according to Elk, the PTSD expert. “Sometimes folks with PTSD tend to isolate, and working remotely could exacerbate the isolation, which can lead to not such a great place for somebody who’s reliving memories in their mind.”

Loneliness can be a contributing risk factor for death by suicide even among veterans who don’t experience PTSD, according to a 2019 flyer published by the VA.

Elk thus suggests veteran remote workers “remind [themselves] and make sure” to find social groups and camaraderie through events like virtual happy hours or other groups in their lives. That’s exactly what Brady Busby did when he organized a veterans group among SelectQuote employees.

“Now we have a group for SelectQuote with hundreds of veterans,” Busby said. “We’re all getting together [virtually]…and everyone’s saying the time they served and posting pictures.”

Busby also is involved with non-profit organizations that aim to get veterans involved with fly-fishing and similar outdoors activities. Bond, the Navy veteran, volunteers with the American Red Cross.

But Elk cautioned that even well-managed remote work is not a cure for vets with PTSD, though it can help reduce symptoms.

“It doesn’t change anything about their trauma,” she said. “That takes treatment to resolve.”

About

Davis Winkie is a reporting intern at the Military Times. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Task & Purpose, VICE, and others. He previously worked as a military historian, and he is a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.

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