Workers' Compensation Newsletter

On-the-Job Stress and Workers' Compensation Law

Workers’ Compensation programs for on-the-job injuries and occupational diseases has generally been associated with physical, as opposed to mental, conditions. However, an increasing number of Workers’ Compensation claims throughout the country allege that mental and/or physical disabilities are “occupational injuries,” caused by workplace stress. This relatively new type of Workers’ Compensation issue has undeniably and increasingly become a focus of attention both in and out of the context of Workers’ Compensation law.

Some states have upheld Workers’ Compensation claims arising out of workplace stress, but the subjective nature of such claims has created significant controversy. Specifically, critics of allowing mental stress-related claims assert that linking an emotional disorder to a work environment is subjective, speculative and difficult. Further, there appears to be no general consensus about which specific mental disorders can be attributed to workplace environment under the objective standards in Workers’ Compensation law.

Possible Causes of the Increase in Mental Stress Claims

Mental stress-related claims for Workers’ Compensation benefits increased significantly in the early to mid-1980’s. Some have speculated that this increase was due to:

  • A softening of the social stigma associated with mental illness
  • A faster-paced world
  • Increased pressures on families when both spouses must work

Types of Mental Stress Claims

As noted above, Workers’ Compensation laws, procedures and regulations vary widely among states, some states, however, divide such claims into three categories:

  1. Mental disability from a physical injury (e.g., when a back injury leads to a psychiatric disability)
  2. Physical disability from mental stress (e.g., stress-induced heart attack)
  3. Mental disability from mental stress (e.g., when the poor working habits of one employee causes a compulsive perfectionist co-worker to develop psychoneurosis)

Many states accept the first two of these categories as creating compensable Workers’ Compensation claims. The third category has been met with more criticism. Workers’ Compensation benefits resulting from all of these categories will largely depend upon local state law and precedent.

Possible Employer Action

In light of the fact that stress-related injuries are becoming increasingly legitimized and accepted as compensable under Workers’ Compensation law in many states, it may be prudent for employers to be aware of and investigate stressful conditions and problems in the workplace. In addition, employers should be proactive and develop policies and strategies to deal with such issues before they result in Workers’ Compensation claims. Possible job-related sources of mental stress include:

  • Job performance pressures
  • Harassment
  • Fear of lay-offs or termination
  • Discrimination
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