Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. It is a dreadful disorder, that can make the sufferer feel guilt at the incident, stop them from sleeping and isolate them from their friends and family. It has the potential to completely take over someone’s life, change their personality and affect them every day through nightmares and flashbacks. Those who suffer need the best help possible to aid them in their recovery.
PTSD impacts a person’s ability to function at work (Erbes et al. 2011; Adler et al. 2011) and negatively affects long-term employment (Amick et al. 2017) and income (Pabayo et al. 2017). Veterans who screen positive for PTSD are more likely to be unemployed than those without PTSD (Sripada et al. 2016). This study examines two different techniques for employment support: vocational rehabilitation for veterans with PTSD, involving a step-by-step transitional work programme in a Veterans Affairs (VA) setting, as opposed to a referral to an Individual Placement and Support (IPS) programme, which has strong evidence of its effectiveness in people living with serious mental illness and other conditions (Drake et al. 2013, Drake et al. 1999, Lehman et al. 2002, Cook et al. 2005, Mueser et al. 2016, Salyers et al. 2004), including 1 small pilot study in veterans with PTSD (Davis et al. 2012). A previous study from 2017 found that veterans are significantly more likely to be employed at discharge from VA supported employment (like IPS) compared with VA transitional work programmes (Abraham et al. 2017). However, a lack of evidence and the inherent cost of IPS has led to the VA reducing the ability of veterans with PTSD to access IPS employment programmes (Abraham et al. 2014).
IPS involves job development to rapidly obtain competitive work in the community that aligns with the participant’s preferences, skills and abilities (Carolan, 2016), whilst Transitional work is a step-by-step vocational intervention within the VA that involves vocational assessments followed by pre-employment, non-competitive, time-limited, minimum wage activity, typically maintenance, housekeeping or laundry services within the VA itself. The transitional work assignments differ from a competitive job: there is no job application, no competitive selection process, the incumbent does not have ownership of the position, it is temporary and there is no scope for advancement.
The study is a multi-centre, prospective RCT comparing the effectiveness of IPS vs transitional work in unemployed veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD. The investigators theorised that more veterans in the IPS group would become steady workers (primary outcome) and earn more income from competitive jobs (secondary outcome) over the 18-month follow-up compared with the transitional work group. Veterans were recruited between December 2013 and April 2015 from 12 VA medical centres. Veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD who were aged 65 years or younger, currently unemployed, interested in seeking competitive employment, eligible for transitional work and willing to be randomised were included. Veterans with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or current suicidal or homicidal ideation were excluded. Participants were randomised to either IPS or transitional work and followed up for 18 months, regardless of their adherence to the intervention.
The investigators stated that the primary outcome was steady work, defined as holding a competitive job for at least 39 weeks out of the 78 week follow-up period. Competitive employment was defined as a non-sheltered job earning a salary, wages, or commission, excluding transient cash-based jobs. The participant did not have to hold the same job during consecutive weeks to be counted towards meeting the threshold of a steady worker.
The power analysis was based on the results of a 12 month PTSD study comparing IPS with transitional work. The planned sample size of 540 was projected to provide 90% power to detect a 12.5% difference in the participants achieving steady worker status.
A total of 588 participants were recruited, randomised to IPS (n=271) and transitional work (n=270), with 437 (80.8%) completing the study and no significant difference in retention between the two groups. Participants were unemployed for a median of 1.4 years, 47% had not held a job in the previous 18 months, and the mean age was 42 years. 99 were women (18.3%), 275 were white (50.6%), 225 were African American (41.6%) and 90 were Hispanic or Latino (16.6%). Half were receiving service income and 55.6% presented with a disability, with PTSD being the most prevalent. A total of 329 participants served in the Army (60.8%), 99 in the Navy (18.3%), 84 in the Marines (15.5%), 47 in the Air Force (8.7%) and 39 in the Coast Guard or National Guard (7.2%). The average length of service was 8.3 years, with 324 serving in Iraq/Afghanistan (59.9%) and 389 serving in a combat zone (71.9%). Participants’ primary trauma resulting in PTSD was identified as nonsexual combat-related (n=319, 59%), 93 due to military sexual assault (17.2%) and 71 due to other military-related events (13.1%). In the cohort, 413 scored above the PCL-5 threshold for current PTSD diagnosis at baseline (76.3%).
|Outcome||Individual Placement and Support (IPS) (n=271)||Transitional Work (n=270)||P Value|
|105 (38.7%)||63 (23.3%)||<.001|
Mean income from competitive source
|Other employment outcome|
|Competitive job within 18 months||186 (68.6%)||154 (57.0%)||.005|
|Competitive job within 12 months||179 (66.1%)||127 (47.0%)||<.001|
|Competitive job within 6 months||145 (53.5%)||86 (31.9%)||<.001|
|Mean weeks employed in competitive jobs||17.5||12.1||<.001|
|Mean days employed in competitive jobs||122.3||84.9||<.001|
|Mean time to first competitive job (weeks)||18.4||28.2||<.001|
|Employment outcomes from transitional work assignments|
|Worked in transitional work assignment||11 (4.1%)||142 (52.6%)||<.001|
|Mean weeks in transitional work assignment||0.2||6.9||<.001|
|Mean income from transitional work sources||$205||$2,986|
|Mental health outcomes|
|Mean estimated change to PCL-5||-3.66||-0.82||.07|
The primary outcome of the study reveals that significantly more participants in the IPS group achieved steady work status when compared with the transitional work group (p=<.001) over the 18 month follow-up. Specifically, 105 of the IPS participants (38.7%) compared with 63 of the transitional work group (23.3%) became steady workers.
The other study outcomes revealed that an IPS participant gained competitive employment far more rapidly than transitional work participants, and compared with those in the transitional work group, IPS participants were significantly more likely to: obtain a competitive job, work competitively at any timepoint in the study, and to work more. It is perhaps unsurprising that transitional work participants were more likely than IPS participants to work in a transitional work assignment (52.6% v 4.1%). In the transitional work cohort, 52% of participants began a transitional work assignment after an average delay of 9.7 weeks.
Finally, a review of job classifications (using the Hollingshead scale) found that the number of participants and competitive jobs in each category was similar between the two groups, except for a significant increase in the number of IPS participants working in semi-skilled jobs.
This study provides evidence for the effectiveness of IPS for veterans living with PTSD and the supremacy of IPS over the VA’s transitional work programme in terms of gaining competitive employment, subsequent earnings and time spent in employment. The IPS intervention resulted in significantly earlier competitive job acquisition and far longer job tenure. Whilst PTSD symptoms improved over the 18-month period to a similar extent in both groups, 38.7% of IPS participants became steady workers compared with 23.3% of those following the transitional work programme. Based on the findings of the study, it can be recommended that the VA should provide greater access to IPS for veterans with PTSD.
Strengths and limitations
The study benefits from the fact that it is an RCT, presenting Phase I evidence. Further, the outcomes of the study are consistent with previous findings, a meta-analysis of 21 RCTs found the primacy of competitive employment in IPS with alternative vocational services (Metcalfe et al. 2017). Whilst the study is correct to claim that the broad inclusion/exclusion criteria do match real-world settings (i.e. varying levels of PTSD and the inclusion of those with active substance use), the exclusion of those with serious mental health conditions, and common mental health conditions for that matter, does reduce the applicability of these findings.
The study does have a number of limitations that should be considered. These include the length of the follow-up being only 18 months, the fact that job satisfaction was not considered within the study and the lack of consideration for mental health conditions other than PTSD. Finally, the study could have also benefitted by considering the wider benefits of open, competitive employment in comparison to transitional work placement in relation to the creation of wider personal relationships and the opinions of employers in relation to the experience gained from the two programmes.
Implications for practice
The study correctly identifies that the VA should provide greater access to IPS for veterans with PTSD, but wider consideration should also be paid to the lessons learned in terms of IPS more generally. PTSD is a terrible condition, which impacts people from all walks of life, including veterans. We owe it to them, and to all people who live with this condition, to do our absolute best to support those suffering and to ensure that they have the best resources at hand to help them through what can be a totally debilitating disorder. With that in mind, Prof Kim Mueser in an outstanding editorial relating to this study, says it best:
The time has come to surmount the barriers to funding IPS-supported employment, and to make this effective vocational program available to all people who are struggling with major mental illness.
– Prof Kim Mueser, 2018.
Conflicts of interest
Harry Palmer is a member of the Centre for Mental Health, a key institution in the expansion of IPS in the UK and the primary performer of UK IPS fidelity reviews.
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