West Saint Paul, MN
Number of Employees
Employee’s Return-to-Work at Tapemark Following Crash Landing Into Hudson River
Helped by Supportive Treatment and Caring Workplace Culture
Vallie Collins had always enjoyed the travel required by her job in sales for Tapemark, but these days, as she boards an airplane, she checks out the pilot and starts a conversation about the weather to find out if turbulence is likely. She hopes for a pilot who looks experienced and perhaps has gray hair, someone similar to the calm Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who deftly guided US Airways flight 1549 to an emergency landing in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. Collins was on board that flight, sitting near the rear of the aircraft. She remembers the cold water rushing into the cabin, panicky passengers pressing toward her as they attempted to exit the plane, and the fearful wait for rescue as the plane sank into the icy river waters.
Collins was, and still is, a valued employee of Tapemark, a specialty contract manufacturer in West Saint Paul, Minnesota. Following the crash, she took a week off from work to make her way home (by car) and to piece her life back together after losing her computer, phone, purse, and other belongings. The survival of all 150 passengers and five crew members was a true “happy ending story” that received much media attention. Collins returned to work, and to flying, the following week. A month later, however, she found herself “scared to death,” she recalls, “unable to focus, overly emotional, and having difficulty sleeping.” Her father-in-law encouraged her to seek counseling.
The psychologist explained to Collins that she was experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that her brain’s memory circuits were in a heightened state of arousal after her traumatic experience. While work can often be therapeutic after trauma by helping people return to a familiar routine and source of social support, this was not the case in Collins’ situation. She worked remotely as a sales associate, and her job required a level of focused concentration she was having difficulty reaching again. Her psychologist suggested she needed to reduce the overactive protective responses she was experiencing that put her body on constant alert. The psychologist advised Collins to take a few months off from work to give her brain some healing time.
What are the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, common symptoms of PTSD include:
Intrusion of thoughts, vivid memories, and “flashbacks”
Avoidance of situations, activities, or people that are reminders of the traumatic event
Hyperarousal, insomnia, a constant sense of danger, exaggerated startle reactions
Emotional numbness, or a flood of emotions
Difficulty concentrating or remembering information
A Supportive Return to Work
Collins was embarrassed at first to ask for time off, but when she talked with her boss, he was supportive of the absence. Steve Larsen, Tapemark’s national sales manager, recalls, “I think Vallie was still in shock when she first returned after the crash. After a few weeks, she seemed overwhelmed by her work and unable to take on tasks she normally would. That was out of character for her — a red flag.” Larsen knew that the goal-oriented Collins would only ask for time off if she needed it. Larsen and the sales team would be challenged to cover for her, since she was a dynamic and active sales manager, yet he and his team also respected the seriousness of the event and the length of time Collins might need to heal. Her customers were also quite understanding and concerned for her welfare. In fact, Collins found the outpouring of support from coworkers and clients nearly overwhelming. It was, she says, “like getting to go to your own funeral, and being able to think about the value of all your relationships.”
The company’s human resources vice president, Pat Mork, worked with Collins on the paperwork for a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) absence, and Collins began her period of healing. “What exactly do you want me to do with this time?” she asked her psychologist. Collins does not sit still well — as an engineer-turned-sales-executive, wife, and mother of three children, she was used to a busy pace. Her psychologist helped her devise a plan of action to override the brain’s memory circuits by learning a new skill that would be socially engaging and physically and mentally challenging but not overly taxing. Collins had always wanted to learn tennis, which met all of those goals. After several weeks, she began feeling less fatigued, she had fewer auditory flashbacks and bad dreams, and her appetite returned. She found her concentration and mental focus gradually improving, and she felt therapeutic satisfaction in her new accomplishments. Research suggests opportunities for exercise and mastery experiences may be helpful for reducing PTSD symptoms, improving quality of life for people with PTSD, and building resiliency to stressors (Benight & Bandura, 2004; Jones, Harding, Chung, & Campbell, 2009; Southwick, Vythilingam, & Charney, 2005).
During Collins’ time away, Larsen and Mork traded off checking in on her once or twice a week by phone to see if she needed anything or just to visit. They never pressured her to return, but they shared with her that she was valued and missed. Tapemark’s president also called and expressed concern. He had experienced a serious car accident in the past and could relate to Collins’ situation.
After a few weeks, Mork realized that Collins’ experience on Flight 1549 had occurred on company time, and Collins’ absence qualified as a worker’s compensation leave. This would provide Collins some additional time off and reduce her out-of-pocket costs for treatment. Worker’s compensation regulations required that she see a psychiatrist, who helped explain the science and symptoms related to her condition. The psychiatrist and the psychologist together helped Collins identify when and why some of her symptoms (such as a sense of panic in chaotic situations) were occurring and strategies to employ to address the symptoms (such as distracting herself with Sudoku puzzles before and during takeoffs when flying). Collins was not afraid she was going to die, but rather she feared the feeling of anxiety, of not being in control. She now gives herself permission not to get on or stay on a plane if she feels uneasy about the flight. Just having that strategy in place has helped keep her anxiety in check, and she has not actually avoided a flight yet.
Collins’ husband was supportive of her quitting work altogether if she wanted, but Collins felt her job “gave her validation, a sense of success and accomplishment.” Besides, she wanted her children to see her flying with confidence again. Her psychologist and psychiatrist both suggested she not make any substantial life changes too quickly. She also heard her grandmother’s wise voice saying, “Vallie, if you run away from one thing, you run into something else.”
Collins worked with Larsen, her supervisor, to identify accounts that she could ease back into visiting, and he did not pressure her to visit those accounts that required air travel. She increased her visits to accounts gradually, adding short, direct flights as she felt more comfortable with air travel, and she raised her work time up to 20 hours per week, where it currently remains.
“Even at working 20 hours,” Larsen comments, “Vallie is flexible, always considering the priorities of her customers and team. I’ve never heard that one of her customers couldn’t get a hold of her. She has a better balance on life in general and is better able to monitor her time.”
Accommodating Workers with PTSD
There are many different kinds of events that may put workers at risk of PTSD, including natural disasters, combat, domestic violence, incest, and traumatic accidents. It is not fully known why some people exposed to the same event develop the disorder and others do not.
“Employers should recognize that a high number of veterans experience PTSD, yet highly effective treatments for PTSD exist,” says Lt Col (Dr.) Steven Pflanz, Chief of the Medical Staff at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, a board certified psychiatrist, and a member of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health’s advisory council. “Workers need not suffer with the quality of life and work performance decrements associated with PTSD. Treatments like prolonged exposure therapy can be game changers for the employee and employer alike.”
The U.S. Department of Labor and other federal agencies created a program called America’s Heroes at Work to help those with combat-related PTSD return successfully to the workplace. The accommodations below that are part of the program can be useful for employees with other sources of PTSD as well. These recommendations come from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which provides guidance on employing people with disabilities. Needs for accommodations vary widely depending on an individual’s particular limitations. Also, not all people with PTSD will need accommodation, and many will not ask for help.
Problem area examples included:
Lack of Concentration
Coping with Stress
Allow time off for counseling
Assign a supervisor, manager, or mentor to answer the employee’s questions
Working Effectively with a Supervisor
Dealing with Emotions
Allow the employee to take a break and go to a place where s/he feels comfortable to use relaxation techniques or contact a support person
Identify and remove environmental triggers such as particular smells or noises
What Does the Research Say about Supporting People After Trauma?
A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Mental Health Traumatic Stress Research Program and by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggest five empirically supported intervention principles to guide and inform intervention and prevention efforts at the early to mid-term stages following trauma.
These programs are promoting:
The series of supportive measures Vallie received from clinicians, family, friends, coworkers, and her workplace management may have contributed to her successful return to work.
(Source: Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., Bryant, R. A., Brymer, M. J., Friedman, M. J., Ursano, R. J. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283–315; discussion 316–369. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2007.70.4.283)
A Special Place to Work
From a human resources perspective, Mork shares that some organizations may have handled Collins’ situation in a similar compassionate fashion, although Tapemark “. . . is a very special place to work,” she explains. “We’re a nearly 60-year old company with a supportive caring culture. We are a values-driven organization. Our values spell ERICKA for Excellence, Responsibility, Integrity, Community, Knowledge, and Attitude. But if I had to put our values in a nutshell, it would be ‘do the right thing.’” The average length of service at Tapemark is 14 years, but many employees have been there much longer.
In July, the leadership team celebrated seven employees who had their 20-, 25-, 30-, or 35-year anniversaries with lunch at a local country club, and the team will recognize these employees again at the next quarterly employee meeting. At each quarterly meeting, leadership shares the company’s financials, performance, strategies, and goals with all employees. Speakers often include the founder, Bob Klas, Sr., or his son, Bob Klas, Jr., Tapemark’s CEO. Bob Klas, Sr., who is in his 80s and still comes in to work every day, often speaks of his commitment to the Tapemark team. There are often employee achievements or special events to acknowledge. “We love celebrations — and cake and ice cream,” Mork admits.
The company is also highly committed to the community. The Tapemark website highlights the company’s 40-year commitment to helping adults and children with disabilities. Tapemark has held an annual professional-amateur golf tournament for 40 years, raising more than 7 million dollars for community charities. In addition, the company holds an annual Employee Giving Olympics. It is a weeklong team competition of games that increases a sense of community within the company and raises money for United Way, Community Health Charities, and Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless in Saint Paul.
To support the company’s knowledge value, Tapemark recently completed a 3-year grant from Minnesota Job Skills Partnership that delivered more than a million dollars’ worth of training to Tapemark employees. Much of the training focused on continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma black belts, and statistics used in product development and manufacturing. One program, however, focused on employee core passions, helping employees develop a language around their unique skills and interests. Mork says, “Now we actively look for ways to engage those passions at work.”
These program examples and leadership role models go a long way in creating the culture of support and caring for employees, Mork believes. As she explains, “Tapemark managers are supportive of employees because it is the right thing to do. It is what we would want for ourselves. When an employee is injured, we work with them and their restrictions to get them back to work as quickly as possible. The workplace is such an important support system for all of us. If we are disconnected from it too long, we begin to wonder if we are valued. I hope Vallie never questioned for a minute how much she is valued. It is my greatest wish that every Tapemark employee feels the same way.”
Special thanks to Ben Harrington, executive director of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee (MHA) for introducing the Partnership to Vallie Collins’ story and to her employer, Tapemark. Collins recently shared her experience with an employer audience at MHA’s Mental Health Matters in the Workplace Conference.
According to Harrington, “As Vallie so expertly shared with the audience, traumatic events can affect any employee and impede their abilities in the workplace. Her employer, Tapemark, was incredibly supportive with her mental health care needs. The health benefits provided and support from supervisors and human resources were instrumental in her recovery and return to work.”
Find Your MHA
Connect to your local MHA affiliate here and learn more about the education and resources it offers. MHA has more than 300 affiliates around the country. With more than a century of advocacy, public education, and delivery of programs and services, MHA is one of the country’s leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping all people live mentally healthier lives.
Tapemark is a contract manufacturer of medical devices, pharmaceutical products, and consumer products based in West Saint Paul, Minnesota. The company has nearly 60 years of experience in meeting tough challenges with creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit. Tapemark uses a quality systems approach that is customer focused and is integral to operations throughout the organization.
Nancy Spangler, PhD, OTR/L, president of Spangler Associates, Inc., and consultant to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, is a prevention and health management specialist in the Kansas City, Missouri area.
Last Updated: July 2011
Benight, C. C., & Bandura, A. (2004). Social cognitive theory of posttraumatic recovery: the role of perceived self-efficacy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42(10), 1129–1148. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2003.08.008
Jones, R. C., Harding, S. A., Chung, M. C., & Campbell, J. (2009). The prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder in patients undergoing pulmonary rehabilitation and changes in PTSD symptoms following rehabilitation. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation & Prevention, 29(1), 49–56. doi: 10.1097/HCR.0b013e318192787e
Southwick, S. M., Vythilingam, M., & Charney, D. S. (2005). The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: implications for prevention and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 255–291. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.143948
American Psychiatric Association — Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives — Let’s Talk Facts About Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (printable brochure)
National Institutes of Mental Health (information on PTSD available in multiple languages)
United States Department of Veteran Affairs, National Center for PTSD (information for veterans, the general public, providers, and researchers)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series (information to help prepare for and recover from disasters; includes information on individual and organizational resilience and stress management)
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (information for managing a workplace after disaster)