Workers can be injured in countless ways while on the job, from physical injuries incurred working at a construction site, injuries incurred in the course of work-related travel, and even mundane conditions like carpal tunnel that are common in those with desk jobs.
Recently, though, a growing number of employees are raising a new, intriguing question: does severe stress qualify for workers’ compensation?
To understand whether stress is a covered claim category, we must first consider what an employer’s responsibilities are when it comes to health and safety. These generally include performing basic risk assessment when developing new protocols, providing appropriate safety equipment, repairing machinery and workplace hazards, and offering appropriate support or accommodations for workers based on their physical limitations.
There is no legal requirement to minimize stress, but employers are required to prevent active harassment and ensure worker safety on a variety of fronts.
One recent case that underscores the many ways that employers are responsible for their workers’ safety is that of a Washington state worker who was granted permission to sue her employer because the employer put her at risk of stalking. Though neither the employer nor a fellow employee was the stalker, the employee contends that her employer placed her at risk by failing to warn her of a client’s history of stalking other female attorneys appointed to represent him. In this case, the judge considered the claim to fall under workers’ compensation and allowed it to go forward.
Stress And Illness
One of the reasons that the case mentioned above was able to go forward under workers’ compensation laws is that the work-related stalking led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This makes the claimant’s mental health condition a work-related illness and, as the Australia-based firm The Personal Injury Lawyers explain, work-related illnesses qualify for compensation, including those illnesses resulting from stress. And stress, of course, looks like much more than just PTSD.
In thinking about how work stress can lead to psychological injury, examining the impact of pay-for-performance incentive systems can provide important clarity. In a study published studied by the Academy of Management, researchers compared workers at over 1,300 Danish firms and found that those workers at pay-for-performance workplaces saw a 4-6% increase in anti-depressant useassociated with the adoption of those policies. Workers who take these medications also have a 5-9% increase in their likelihood of leaving their jobs, though women were more likely to stay in jobs that damaged their mental health.
Making A Claim
Work-related mental illness is the most obvious motivation for making a workers’ compensation claim, but making such claims based only on stress and no other precipitating event (such as stalking) is exceedingly difficult. While employers may have a duty of care, in Yapp v. FCO, the UK Court of Appeals ruled that employees could only make a workers’ compensation claim if the injury was reasonably foreseeable. It cannot be the result of a one-time stressor, but rather consistent strain, such as long working hours or unreasonable demands.
There are a few exceptions to this foreseeable occurrence standard, which have recently been raised regarding first responders. First responders obviously face serious stress in their work – a foreseeable consequence of working in emergency services – and while some of this stress is cumulative, first responders may also experience one-time events leading to PTSD. This may end their careers, yet they often have a difficult time filing claims.
At present, the legal consensus on these claims is questionable, but experts say that, for the sake of first responders and the field more generally, they must be eligible to file workers’ compensation claimsfor work-related PTSD. While these professionals must be able to tolerate a high level of distress, there are cases such as mass shootings or terrorist attacks that push the limits of what can be expected.
Stress can significantly restrict an individual’s ability to work, but until now that stress has rarely come under legal scrutiny. With this evolution in workers’ compensation law, employers must move past low-value wellness campaigns and provide workers with meaningful mental health support and sustainable working conditions.