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Researcher studying relationship between PTSD, organizational support systems, job performance

picture of Michael Shick

Michael Shick

Ongoing research being conducted by Michael Shick, assistant professor of project management in the College of Business at Western Carolina University, may offer important insights into the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and organizational support systems in settings beyond the military.

A retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, Shick originally began investigating the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) in business, industry and other organizations for his doctoral dissertation at Creighton University, where he received his doctorate in business administration in 2020.

His dissertation, titled “Trauma-Exposed Employee Work Performance: Exploring the Relationships of PTSD Symptom Severity, Perceived Organizational Support and Moderated By Authentic Leadership,” focused on how employees with PTSD perform in the workplace based on how they feel they are being supported by the organization and its leaders.

Shick is now taking that initial research a step further to look at how an individual’s perception of organizational support may affect the severity of PTSD symptoms while on the job based upon the characteristics of the organization’s leadership.

“The study of post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on an individual is relatively robust; however, the research is scant from an organizational, performance and leadership perspective. Based on the prevalence of PTSD, expanding the research into understanding the relationships of PTSD symptom severity toward perceived organizational support, trauma-exposed employee work performance and whether or not authentic leadership strengthens those relationships has come into view,” he said.

Through his initial research, he found that as the severity of PTSD symptoms was reduced, the work performance of trauma-exposed employees improved. In addition, as symptom severity decreased, the employee’s perception of organizational support increased, he said. Finally, the work performance of employees dealing with PTSD improved as their perception of organizational support increased.

“In my previous research, I was looking at individuals – namely employees – who are suffering from some sort of trauma and the impact of that individual’s perception of organizational support on their performance. If the markers for PTSD go up, will the perception of support go down? I found that, in fact, the perception that the organization values the individual and their well-being is a valid concern,” Shick said.

For his latest project, Shick is “flipping the model” and examining the impact of “an authentic leader” on the relationship between the perception of organizational support and the severity of PTSD symptoms, followed by examination of the work performance of employees who have been exposed to trauma.

“We already know that if the perception of organizational support goes up, the severity of symptoms goes down,” he said. “We are now finding that having an authentic leader involved strengthens that situation, and symptom severity can go down even faster. And, once again, if symptom severity goes down, then work performance goes up.”

Unlike the traditional concepts of an organization’s leader, where profit or output is often the primary factor in the decision-making process, an authentic leader will balance the organizational needs with a more genuine approach. This type of leader knows their strengths and weaknesses, and they have a solid moral compass and the ability to relate with other members of the organization, including subordinates, on a personal level. Further, they are open to hearing all perspectives before making a decision.

Schick said that he believes his research can help shine a light on how leadership and organizations can support those who are suffering from invisible wounds and, in turn, enhance the overall work performance and productivity throughout the organization.

“It is my hope that this work can play a role in reducing the stigma of post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues in the workplace and support the importance of providing health-seeking strategies for those who could benefit from them but who often suffer in silence,” he said.

While there is a higher prevalence of individuals dealing with PTSD symptoms in fields where trauma has a higher likelihood of occurring, there is more work to do to create understanding and promote empathy for trauma-affected employees in all sectors and industries, Shick said.

“Previous research shows that PTSD is a problem for those in the military, first-responders and law enforcement, but it is also certainly an issue for individuals who are not employed in high-risk professions. Based on the high risk of trauma-exposure over an individual’s lifetime, it is surprising that so little literature is available from a leadership and organizational perspective,” he said. “Research into the effects of PTSD symptom severity on organizations and employee work outcomes is long overdue. The purpose of this study was to start that dialog.”

After he fine-tunes his latest research, Shick will submit it to the U.S. Air Force for review before seeking publication in a professional journal. He also is founder of Project Pulse Journal, an online guide to global project management trends.

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