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  • 1 November 2023
  • 6 months

Supporting Veterans in the Workplace

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

Community, security, and a meaningful purpose: these are what drive nearly 28 million men and women around the world to join the armed forces each year. Paradoxically, these same three ideals are what far too many servicemen and women leave behind upon their return—widening the gulf between them and those around them that began with their deployment, as more than 80 percent of veterans claim that the public does not understand the problems they face when transitioning to civilian life.

In fact, for many of those who serve, transitioning back into civilian life once they come home is much harder than they anticipate—for some, even more stressful and unfamiliar than being stationed in other countries or deployed to combat zones. Just as research reveals that health outcomes among veterans are predicted more so by socioeconomic factors than military ones, so too is their success in assimilating back into everyday life’s multiple domains, including employment, finances, housing, social supports, and health. Given that individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic minority groups, and rural, underdeveloped areas are more likely to enlist, it comes as no surprise then that approximately three-quarters of veterans say that their transition experience was extremely stressful and difficult, as they face a slew of challenges back on the home front.

In addition to grappling with the traumatic effects of war, some of the most common challenges that veterans face upon their return include:

  • Financial stress, as nearly two in five veterans report having trouble paying their bills in the first few years after leaving the service;
  • Food insecurity, as more than a quarter of service men and women report experiencing very low food security levels during and succeeding their deployment;
  • Houselessness, as 13 percent of the homeless population in the US and Canada, along with underestimated sums of 2 to 6 percent of the homeless population in other countries, are made up by veterans;
  • Familial and marital problems, as more than three-quarters of veterans report experiencing some type of problem at home, including marital strife (61 percent), feeling like a guest in their household (40 percent), being unsure about their family role (37 percent), feeling a disconnection between or observing fear from their children (25 percent), and being unable to access childcare (22 percent);
  • Mental and behavioral health issues, as veterans face a 57 percent higher risk of suicide compared to the general population, while 10 percent are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, anywhere from 7 to 31 percent experience PTSD (depending on the branch), and nearly a quarter suffer from common disorders like anxiety and depression;
  • Difficulty accessing resources, as research suggests that nearly half of veterans are not immediately able to access available resources, benefits, and services, as a quarter of veterans don’t know where to seek support, as many more struggle to access telehealth services or locate in-person care—especially care that is holistic and able to treat co-occurring disorders and understand veterans’ unique challenges; and, most of all
  • Difficulty securing or maintaining employment, as more than half of veterans cite employment as a “top transition challenge,” as 70 percent cite mental health issues as a “barrier to consistent employment;” 20 percent report having “no drive” to find a job; and as the majority of organizations (80 percent) have no veteran-specific recruiting, onboarding, and transitional support services.

And compounding all of these challenges is, of course, the issue of stigma: including the stigma observed among ex-military personnel that they should be able to take resolve their issues on their own, or that they will be judged for seeking help, as well as the stigma present among the rest of society—including and especially employers—that veterans are somehow unfit or ill-equipped for civilian jobs, and that they are overall incapacitated.

How These Challenges Impact Veterans

With this apparent loss of community, support, security, and meaning, the following statistics should come as no shock: (1) that suicide rates among ex-military personnel are four times greater than the number of deaths that occur during deployment, and (2) that such rates of veteran suicide have reached an all-time high, increasing by as much as 25 percent in 2020 alone.

As US Army Staff Sgt. Earl Granville knows from first-hand experience, the reason why so many men and women joined the armed forces is to chase the “three Ps:” purpose, passion, and being part of something bigger than oneself. It’s this quest that’s to blame for why “most of us join as soon as we become adults,” he attests. In the army, there’s a sense of togetherness, a collective drive, and a unifying mission that just can’t be—or at least, aren’t—replicated anywhere else.

“In the military, your team is your second family,” Zachary Green, Managing Partner of Warrior Enterprises, further explains. “Together, you share laughter, tears, triumphs, and sometimes even squabbles. This bond is incredibly potent and invaluable. But the moment you step out of the military, it vanishes.

And this vanishment—coupled with the discovery that, back at home, “you’re on your own”—can be a significant source of whiplash for veterans. Having already struggled with isolation, loneliness, repression, and other stressful conditions while deployed, veterans who come home to find that what they thought would be a sanctuary actually isn’t, can buckle under the weight of exhaustion, despair, hopelessness, and shame.

As many researchers, including those at the World Health Organization, note, having a strong social network—especially one that is affirming and proactive when it comes to providing support—is essential if not the most essential for warding off adverse mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Without one, individuals are more likely to turn to unhealthy and oftentimes counterproductive coping strategies, namely substance abuse, as those who served so often do—which only creates a cycle of harm as they further alienate themselves from those around them, further reduce their chances of getting timely and sufficient help, and add to the mountain of challenges they’re facing back at home. As a result, studies have found that the rate of depression among veterans is five times that of the general population.

The Role of Employment and Current Barriers

Consequently—and especially in the context of veterans’ health and wellbeing—employment plays a major role in safeguarding and promoting good holistic health, including mental, physical, social, spiritual, and financial. Oftentimes, securing a job is the difference between having a will to live—having a place to live—and falling victim to hopelessness, homelessness, addiction, and suicide. It helps veterans to maintain some sense of order and structure that they ultimately lose once they come home. And it helps to retain their sense of purpose or the feeling that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, allowing them to once again work alongside a team to achieve common goals.

Unfortunately, however, there are a number of roadblocks that stand in the way of veterans being able to attain employment, the first of which—going back to the current lack of veteran-specific recruiting, onboarding, and transition programs—is the difficulty veterans face in translating their military skills to occupational skills. As Dr. Timothy Foy, Unit Director at the Services for Education and a veteran himself, explains, “A lot of people don’t understand what leadership in the military entails. It’s real teamwork…Veterans bring hands-on diversity experiences, things you can’t learn in a monthly diversity training…People don’t understand the work ethic a soldier brings to the table.”

Because of this lack of understanding, it’s on veterans to be able to translate their skills for their potential employers, but unfortunately, as Granville notes, there oftentimes is no direct job translation; there’s no ostensible way to draw a connection between the tasks assigned to oneself in the military to the kinds of tasks that would be assigned in a corporate setting. And so long as veterans fail to present their skills through corporate verbiage, stigma and stereotypes prevail: namely, that veterans, while “widely perceived to excel in their ability to complete certain tasks, such as planning and executing operations,” are “less adept at tasks that rely on emotional intelligence and creativity.” As a consequence, researchers find that nearly a quarter of veterans receive unemployment benefits at some point after serving, while Liberty Street Economics reports that veterans are 18 percent more likely to be out of work than their civilian peers who share comparable education and disability statuses.

Even for veterans who are able to obtain employment, challenges still abound. At the most basic level, these include those that occur during a veteran’s onboarding process. Veterans are used to a very clear-cut, static, and strict set of rules, processes, and regulations. In the military, there is a well-defined chain of command, and there are no opportunities for “ad-libbing,” or switching up one’s roles or duties once they’ve been assigned. Because of this, some veterans can struggle getting acclimated to a looser, more flexible work environment, where policies lack rigidity and responsibilities lack clarity. They might also experience difficulty when it comes to understanding their benefits package and other perks, as what once was automatically applied to them suddenly becomes something they have to enroll for—and only during certain periods.

Nevertheless, rigid work arrangements and “desk life” can also impede upon veterans’ ability to thrive at work. As previously noted, veterans are bombarded with a host of responsibilities once they return home, including family care, securing housing, and attending medical appointments, to name a few. It can be hard for veterans to “completely” show up to work—in other words, to bring their whole selves to work—when they have these stressors at the forefront of their minds. Moreover, the transition from a physical to mental workplace can also prove difficult for veterans who are used to constant motion, causing them to grapple with the physical, emotional, and mental fallout that comes with switching to a sedentary lifestyle.

A lack of opportunities for professional growth and development, as well as the inability to connect with the mission, goals, or values of an organization are additional setbacks that veterans face in the workplace. But the worst and most damaging of all is undoubtedly the stigma that they face from potential employers, managers, and peers; chiefly, the stereotype that if you served, you automatically have PTSD.

This is a misconception that Granville knows all too well, as he’s had to explain to colleagues—as well as friends—that “just because [he] lost his leg, doesn’t mean [he has] PTSD.” The truth is, countless studies have affirmed that—in general—veterans are only at a minimally higher risk of PTSD than the civilian population (7 percent compared to 6 percent). And yet, far too many employers unfairly assume that hiring a veteran means hiring “all their baggage” with them—which, in itself, is a concerning statement.

As CAF veteran Bettina McCulloch-Drake implores, “Believing that people with mental health issues, including PTSD, cannot be effective and productive members of any workplace or community is a belief that really needs to be debunked,” as she likens stigmatic beliefs toward PTSD to the idea that other employees who require mental health support “can’t do their jobs well,” which, obviously, simply isn’t true.

How Employers Can Support Veterans in the Workplace

That said, there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to creating a more inclusive, affirming, and empowering workplace for veterans. Chiefly, these improvements include:

Providing access to personalized, holistic, and multimodal healthcare. First and foremost, one of the most important improvements employers can make toward creating a more veteran-friendly work environment is to look over and expand their provider network to ensure that it includes ample coverage for both physical and mental health care—specifically that which specializes in, or at the very least, is cognizant of, veterans’ unique health needs.

New research from SAMSHA revealed that, in 2020, more than half of veterans with a mental illness did not receive treatment, while the overwhelming majority (a whopping 90 percent) of veterans with a substance use disorder also failed to seek help. Among the many reasons why—which, of course, include the stigma surrounding mental health and help seeking—experts have underscored the “lack of diversity of care” as a standout contributor.

As further research from the RAND corporation notes, some of the biggest barriers that veterans face when it comes to accessing mental health support include a lack of culturally competent care (as the global military population becomes increasingly diverse in terms of race and gender); the dissolution—or at least, the growing scarcity—of in-person care (as RAND research found that nearly half of telehealth medical visits among veterans during the pandemic were audio-only, suggesting a lack of video call access among this generally lower-income cohort of patients—or a preference for human connection in the physical realm); and a lack of “holistic” care that can simultaneously treat co-occurring conditions (as RAND research finds that nearly 90 percent of veterans with PTSD also have an SUD).

Furthermore, experts have also pointed to a lack of care for moral injuries as another glaring deficiency among many providers—although this is not technically their fault, as there, unfortunately, is no validated treatment for moral injury-related distress…which makes it harder for veterans to receive the support they need to heal, and subsequently harder for providers to deliver such support. But, by investing in providers who demonstrate sensitivity and adept understanding of such unique experiences and health concerns, employers can greatly improve veteran employees’ access to mental health support and improve their utilization rates of these services.

Organizing anti-stigma and educational campaigns. And, of course, in addition to ramping up one’s care provider network, employers will also need to prioritize improving the culture around mental health and health-seeking at work. This includes raising awareness about common mental health challenges that veterans experience as they transition back to civilian life, normalizing these experiences, and educating them on what can be done to effectively treat them—and encouraging them to do so.

Looking out for signs of psychological distress. As employers aim to educate their veteran staff on the signs and symptoms of ill-mental health, they should also devote equal attention toward training their colleagues—including and especially their managers and supervisors—on how to spot warning signs of mental and behavioral health issues among their veteran peers.

According to researchers at SAMHSA, these warning signs include:

    • Appearing sad, depressed, or hopeless
    • Exhibiting signs of nihilism; or expressing that there is no reason to live
    • Appearing to be extremely moody, irritable, or quick to anger
    • Engaging in risky activities, including excessive drinking, smoking, or substance use
    • Appearing bored or disinterested in once enjoyed activities
    • Neglecting one’s appearance or performance
    • Withdrawing from social activities at work

Offering an expansive benefits package. In addition to supporting veteran employees’ mental and physical health, the plethora of research dedicated to veterans’ dualling family and financial responsibilities—as well as the research that shows that those who enlist are also more likely to come from undereducated backgrounds (often looking to exchange service for higher education)—suggests that employers also need to invest in services and resources that support the whole individual and their overall quality of life.

In the case of veterans, the most sought-after services include:

  • Family care services (e.g., child, elder, and dependent care)
  • On-site daycare
  • Disability, vision, dental, and life insurance options
  • Flexible work arrangements
  • Ample paid time off (PTO), sick leave, and paid family leave
  • 401(k) and retirement planning
  • Mortgage services
  • Financial coaching
  • Student loan support and tuition reimbursement; and
  • Formal training opportunities

Implementing flexible work arrangements and offering ample leave time. As highlighted above, two of the most important benefits that employees can offer their veteran staff are flexible work arrangements and generous PTO and leave time. As recently discharged veterans try to navigate their way through overlapping and compounding family, financial, social, and medical obligations, having to adhere to traditional, fixed work arrangements can prove a major challenge for them. To help them meet both their work and external obligations, employers can offer flexible hours, opportunities for remote or hybrid work, as well as leave policies that allow them to leave early or show up late to the office in order to attend appointments or meet family obligations without having to take a full day off from work, as well as parental leave policies that allow any guardian or caregiver to take time off work, and not just new moms.

Additionally, research has shown that volunteer time off is particularly attractive to this group. As Eric Eversole, president of Hiring our Heroes, attests, “the desire to give back is more so ingrained with veterans and military spouses.” Thus, creating a robust volunteer program is not only a great way to give veterans some extra time off, but also to get them involved in and help them to serve their communities, which will also help them readjust to and find meaning in civilian life.

Supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) goals. In tandem with providing a diverse range of perks and benefits, employers should also strive to diversify the culture of their workplace—including their teams, their leadership, and even the way in which they work to achieve their goals.

Primitive research tells us that at least a third of active-duty military personnel identify as being from a racial minority; while women and LGBTQIA+ persons are also making up larger and larger percentiles of military populations. Just as employers strive to create a safe, inclusive workplace for veterans, so too should they do so for all those from marginalized or underrepresented groups.

How can employers achieve this? In the context of veterans, experts contend that foregoing discriminatory hiring and in-house promotion practices is one way to do so. For instance, according to LinkedIn’s 2023 Future of Recruiting report, a whopping 75 percent of recruiting professionals plan to prioritize “skills-based hiring” over the next year and a half. This way, recruiters can focus on the skills that a person would be bringing to the table, rather than elitist and outdated considerations like resumes, references, historic salary details, and educational and employment history. This hiring approach can also include the use of work samples or aptitude tests that allow candidates to demonstrate their skills—something that is particularly beneficial for veterans as well as marginalized candidates.

Diversifying one’s leadership team is also a great way to demonstrate a commitment to DEIB—particularly for veterans. As Joel Kam, Senior HR Advisor at the Canada Revenue Agency, explains, “One thing [that] I think often gets missed is that [veterans] at all levels make really good supervisors and managers…[we’re able] to plan, organize, prioritize, and make decisions within their authorities. While we may not be technically proficient in the work domain, we learn fast, and we get stuff done.”

While not all veterans served in leadership positions during their deployment, experts contend that even those with junior-level backgrounds demonstrate an advanced understanding of what it takes to be a great leader due to the demands of the job.

Organizing team-building exercises; creating employee resource groups (ERGs). According to findings from the Wounded Warrior Project’s Annual Warrior Survey, veterans who are employed by organizations that offer employee resource or “affinity groups” are more likely to be professionally fulfilled than their counterparts at organizations that offer no such resources.

When veterans leave the military, they also leave behind the teams they called a family throughout their service. This can be especially hard for veterans to deal with as they face pressures to establish not only a support network but a professional network as well. By creating an employee resource group—either made up exclusively of veterans, military spouses, or family members of military personnel—employers can provide veterans with a smoother transition into the corporate world and help to build camaraderie and companionship between this cohort of workers.

Establishing mentor- and ambassadorship programs. Similarly, employers may also want to designate mentors and ambassadors for veterans in the workplace. This may include partnering recent veteran recruits with exemplary employees who can help introduce them to the inner workings of the organization and help to familiarize them with the organization’s culture. These mentors or ambassadors can also be used to signpost the resources and services that are available to veteran employees through their benefits package, and to encourage them to take advantage of these services.

Providing adequate training, workshops, and learning and development opportunities. Second only to ensuring that the workplace is psychologically safe for veterans via access to affirming care, flex-benefits, and a diverse workforce, providing enough professional development opportunities is probably one of the most important improvements that employers can make toward creating a more veteran-friendly workplace. As experts at Forbes aver, supporting veterans in the workplace “starts with providing the necessary skills for success [as] professional success gives veterans a means to survive financially.”

Such development opportunities can include offering reimbursements for courses or degree programs, allowing workers to shadow colleagues from other teams or departments for a day, providing in-house training, workshops, or leadership programs, and offering career coaching.

As duly noted, though many veterans already possess an advanced skillset that makes them good candidates for a number of jobs, it is not always obvious how they can repackage these military-based skills as corporate ones. Thus, one important way in which employers can help advance longeval careers for their veteran employees is by helping them revamp their resume—specifically, by helping them discern how to best define their skills.

According to data compiled by Northeastern University, the top ten transferable skills that military candidates can include on their resumes include:

  • Leadership
  • Financial responsibility
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Effective communication
  • Integrity
  • Technology skills
  • Teamwork
  • Ability to perform under pressure
  • Quick to adapt
  • Problem-solving

Sharing consistent feedback and regularly checking in. During their time in the military, veterans were conditioned to act-on-command and to only act when commanded. Upon switching to the workplace, it can be hard for veterans to switch out of this mentality and to act on their own accord. Thus, it’s important that their managers and supervisors regularly check in with their veteran employees to make sure that they know what it is they’re expected to do and are prepared to perform their jobs effectively.

Through these regular check-ins, managers and supervisors can also go over the framework or structure of the organization, helping them to better understand the organization’s chain of command and how their role fits into the overall hierarchy. Most importantly, they can also conduct performance and skills competency reviews to help veterans monitor their professional growth and discern what skills they need to learn or demonstrate in order to move up either within the organization or beyond.

Ultimately, what each of these strategies share is that they demonstrate patience, sensitivity, and a belief in the abilities and potential of veteran employees to thrive both within the workplace and the larger working world. After giving their all to serve their communities, veterans are now in need of some service of their own; that is, the dedication and support from their employers to help them forge meaningful and sustainable careers.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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