When one thinks of workers’ compensation, images of workplace accidents and occupational diseases come to mind. Though the vast majority of workers’ compensation cases do involve claims for physical injuries and conditions, a small-but potentially growing-portion of workers’ compensation cases are based on mental or psychological claims, particularly related to stress experienced on the job.
Mental workers’ compensation cases fall into one of three categories: physical/mental, mental/physical, or mental/mental. A physical/mental claim involves a workplace physical injury that has progressed to a mental condition or disability; an example would be a back injury that lingers, and that results in the worker lapsing into clinical depression. A mental/physical claim involves a psychological condition arising out of the worker’s employment that has caused a physical illness; an example would be workplace-induced stress that causes ulcers. A mental/mental claim involves a psychological occurrence in the course of employment, which leads to a psychological injury or condition; an example would be an employee who witnesses a horrific workplace accident involving a co-worker, and who later develops a fear of operating the same equipment on which the co-worker was injured.
As with workers’ compensation claims that have only physical components, in order to be compensable, the claimed injury or condition must arise out of or occur during the course of employment. Some types of mental injuries are difficult to prove under this standard. For example, symptoms of physical ailments caused by stress (e.g., ulcers, heart attacks) may appear only after working in a stressful workplace for a long period of time. Furthermore, unlike claims based on a workplace accident, mental claims may not be linked to one particular incident, but rather to months or years of stressful working conditions.
Another example of the complexity of the cause-effect link in mental workers’ compensation claims is seen in claims based on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a delayed psychological response to experiencing an extreme situation that overwhelms one’s usual ability to cope. Most commonly thought of in connection with soldiers and wartime, discussions of PTSD arose after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Though few would doubt the psychological impact of witnessing the devastation in New York or Washington first-hand, by definition, symptoms of PTSD do not appear for months or years after the event, making their connection to the workplace event difficult to assess.
Mental workers’ compensation claims represent a tiny percentage of all claims; estimates put claims with a mental component at about 1% of claims overall, although this figure varies by state. For a period of time in the 1980s and early 1990s, the incidence of claims with a mental component rose in some states, but stricter requirements imposed by state lawmakers, workers’ compensation boards, and courts stemmed this trend. In particular, mental/mental claims are least recognized.
Though workers’ compensation claims with a mental component represent only a small minority of claims today, the reality of the modern workplace should motivate all employers to be alert to their existence. White collar workers-who are most likely to claim an injury with a mental component-make up an ever-growing portion of the U.S. work force. Furthermore, today’s workplace puts great pressure on employees to be productive and cost-efficient. Many workers live with fear of job loss, as businesses continue to seek optimum competitiveness through “right-sizing.” All of these factors can breed stress.
All employers can take some basic steps to deal with increased stress levels in the workplace-
• Be alert to signs of stress among employees, and solicit input from employees and managers on this issue. Be aware that certain events, such as layoffs, may trigger stress levels in employees beyond what is to be expected on a day-to-day basis.
• Make employee assistance program (EAP) services available so that workers have ready access to help with dealing with stress.
• In the event of a severe workplace trauma, arrange for on-site intervention and counseling services.
Though these steps will not make a business immune from the possibility of a workers’ compensation claim with a mental component, they will, at the least, help make stress recognition and prevention part of the workplace ethic.