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

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

Is Your Company Supporting Veterans in the Workplace?

A veterans’ hiring initiative can make a significant impact on your company’s bottom-line due to characteristics they offer from military training, like a solution-oriented approach, loyalty, and integrity, among others. However, studies have shown most veterans leave their first job upon returning to civilian life within two years. Not only do these men and women have to adjust to life outside of the armed forces, but many also have to make the transition with a newly acquired disability as a result of their service. Employers can play a pivotal role in the reintegration process by creating a welcoming and supportive environment.

Use these 5 tips to build a veteran-friendly workplace and ensure your company’s veterans’ hiring initiative not only attracts, but retains these service men and women.

  1. Prepare

    As you develop your hiring initiative, ask yourself: Who are the leaders or managers that can champion this initiative? What kinds of resources do they control to make the program successful? Nothing will hurt the effort more than a supervisor who is non-supportive.

    Employers should also audit their workplaces to ensure they are accessible to veterans with disabilities. Take the time to establish a protocol to identify and fulfill accommodations requests in a timely manner. Having a centralized accommodations budget will alleviate financial barriers at the department-level. Ensuring there is a network of systems set up to support veterans before they are hired will help make their transition easier and more effective.

  2. Create a Culture of Inclusion

    A culture of inclusion is arguably the most important way you can help your veteran employees with disabilities. What might seem like common knowledge to civilians, like corporate language and practices, can seem alien to veterans, many of whom have only experienced military practices in their adult life.

    A cultural assessment will give an opportunity to identify areas of the organization that will be more or less welcoming to veterans. Ask yourself: Are managers open to the idea that some changes might have to be made in order to create a more inclusive environment?

    Make sure that newly hired veterans are informed of commonplace business practices and terminology for your company. Highlight key resources available for veterans with disabilities and ensure that not only veterans, but all employees, are made aware of them. You should also familiarize your veteran employee with “how things work” at the company, for both formal and informal practices. Similarly, educate supervisors and staff about common military phrases and methodologies so that they can accurately communicate with their employees.

  3. Ensure Consistent Support

    Once you have started a veterans’ hiring initiative make sure there is consistent and comprehensive support throughout the employment life cycle. In the military, there is training for almost every aspect of military life, unlike the civilian workplace. That support should start at the onset of employment with the onboarding process. Providing a more structured onboarding process helps to acclimatize veterans to the workplace more quickly and to accelerate their productivity. Similarly, have clear and direct training for the veteran that is both formal and informal.Another way to support veterans with disabilities is by engaging them in workplace groups that can make them feel welcome and connected. Having mentors will also help give veterans, especially those with disabilities, an outlet to ask questions that they might not feel comfortable asking a supervisor or manager. Veterans who feel they are consistently supported at work will demonstrate increased engagement and loyalty.

  4. Be Flexible

    Anticipate that there will be a learning process for both the employer and the veteran employee. Both you and the veteran are figuring out how best to work together and help each other succeed. The employer should be flexible, especially with regard to service-related disabilities, in order for the veteran’s employment to be successful. For example, a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might prefer sitting with back against the wall or need a quiet place to work. Many times there are simple fixes to a veteran’s needs as long as your company is flexible in allowing those changes to occur. Keep in mind: A veteran who is adapting to a new disability might need additional time and resources to adjust.

  5. Provide and Welcome Feedback

    Establish open and honest, two-way communication. In the military, there is frequent performance feedback and instructions and communication are typically very direct between service men and women and their superiors. In the civilian workplace, it can help to lay out some of the key goals and metrics that are expected of the veteran. Establish a clear career path so that the member can understand where their career is headed and their pathway to success. Check in to make sure the veteran is feeling supported and see if he or she has accommodation requests that could improve their work experience. By taking these conscious steps, employers can establish an authentic relationship with the veteran and ensure success on the job.

For more information on recruiting and retaining veterans with disabilities, check out our Employers’ Guide to Welcoming and Supporting Wounded Warriors.

Career Action Planning Guide for Wounded Warriors

The Career Action Planning Guide for Wounded Warriors outlines a process for working with veterans with serious disabilities or wounded warriors as they transition to civilian careers. Career Action Planning is the first of a four step process that together constitute the Intensive Career Transition Support Model™ for veterans with high barriers to career transition developed by the National Organization on Disability.

13 Career Action Planning Guide for Wounded Warriors