Job Stress and Workers’ Compensation: What makes a claim?

By: Cristina N. Hyde, JD

As workers begin to emerge from their homes and return to their offices, it is important to recognize that a certain level of additional stress is inevitable thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has changed the work environment and personal interactions.  Even prior to the pandemic, recent years have seen an increase in the filing of occupational stress and psychiatric claims no-doubt due to, in part, the push to de-stigmatize mental health issues in the workplace.

We all know that chronic stress can affect overall health, but what is becoming more evident is that more-than-ordinary stress or a particularly traumatizing workplace event can lead to psychiatric conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression.  All of these conditions have a palpable effect on an employee’s daily life and could rise to the level of a valid workers’ compensation claim, however a claimant’s burden of proof on such a claim remains high.

In New Jersey, occupational psychiatric claims, such as those of work-related stress, are governed by a three-pronged test laid out by the Appellate Court in 1991.  In that case, the court emphasized that sympathy for the claimant would not automatically lead to compensation.  Instead a claimant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  1. They were subjected to objectively verified stressful work conditions (This will require credible evidence beyond the sole testimony of the claimant).
  2. The work conditions at issue are peculiar to workplace and not common to everyone in all occupations.
  3. There is medical evidence showing that the working conditions were the material cause of the disability claimed.

Under this test, many stress-related claims arising from incidents such as legitimate work criticism, or being fired, will not succeed because such criticism and losing one’s job are common events to everyone in all occupations.  Goyden v. State Judiciary, 256 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 1991), aff’d, 128 N.J. 54 (1992).  Therefore, while it is important to know that there is possible redress for peculiar circumstances, it would also be advisable to address ordinary stress with employees and provide resources for coping with that stress.  You can find information on how to help your employees cope with job stress on the CDC’s website.

If you have any questions about occupational stress in itself, or its relationship to workers compensation claims, contact us.

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