What makes work stress “extraordinary” under worker’s compensation?

Work-related injuries are a lot easier to claim and prove when diagnostic testing, such as an MRI or audiogram, helps diagnose and document the problem.  For example, if a worker breaks her leg on the job, x-rays will clearly document the injury and the claim will usually be straightforward. However, most psychological injuries do not have any specific type of test to support diagnosis and can be much more difficult to claim under worker’s compensation.

3 Types of Psychological Injuries Under WI Worker’s Compensation

There are three main types of psychological injuries in Wisconsin worker’s compensation:

  1. Physical-Mental (e.g. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conversion disorder, psychogenic pain disorder, depression)
  2. Mental-Physical (e.g. heart attack, stroke, ulcers)
  3. Mental-Mental (e.g. bullying, witness to gruesome injury/death)

Examples of Mental Injuries Under WI Worker’s Compensation

Physical-Mental: Often physical work injuries result in chronic symptoms, including pain. Chronic pain may cause a number of problems such as trouble sleeping, poor concentration, personality which may lead to a diagnosis of depression.

Mental-Physical:  Physical ailments produced by workplace stressors are incredibly hard to diagnose.  Heart attack and strokes have been found compensable in situations that work either caused or aggravated the conditions. Workplace stressors may include working hours longer than industry standards, frequent and/or disproportionate criticism or a confrontation.

Mental-Mental:  PTSD is a mental health condition caused by witnessing a severe or traumatic event. Unlike daily stressors, PTSD is usually triggered by specific horrific event, such as an assault or accident. Some employees may be not able to ever return to their job, while others may work a period of time before they experience psychological distress.  In documenting a claim for any of the above injuries, it is important to understand the legal definitions involved in order to build a case supporting a worker’s compensation claim.

“Extraordinary Stress Standard” Defines Worker’s Comp Psychological Injuries

The prevalent “test” to link the psychological injury to the work activity is the Extraordinary stress standard (ESS).  “Mental injury non-traumatically caused must have resulted from a situation of greater dimensions than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension which all employees must experience.  Wisconsin laws specifies, “only if the fortuitous event unexpected and unforeseen [the accident or accidental result] can be said to be so out of the ordinary from the countless emotional strains and differences that employees encounter daily without serious mental injury.” School Dist. No. 1, Village of Brown Deer v. Department of Industry Labor and Human Relations, 215 N.W.2d 373 (Wis. 1974).

In considering the ESS, one must compare similarly situated employees. “It is the amount of stress in the applicant’s occupation and field, however, which serves in the benchmark for comparison with the stress that applicant claims entitles him or her to workers’ compensation” Spink v. Farm Credit Services, WC Claim No. 87-32662 (LIRC Dec. 11, 1989).  For example, police officers and emergency care workers are naturally and frequently exposed to gruesome injuries in the course of their employment.  In comparison, employees in construction or utility work may likely witness or experience gruesome injuries but not likely naturally or frequently in the course of their employment.

The ESS also considers the nature of the work stressor.  “The injury must be an egregious one that is to be tested not by the severity of the distress or disabling manifestations, but by the severity or traumatizing likelihood of the particular causative circumstances of employment. Bretl v. Labor and Industry Review Com’n,  553 N.W.2d 550 (Ct. App. 1996).  Those with stronger personalities may be able to handle more of a stressor than others, such as frequent criticism, and have no temporary or permanent discomfort. Those with pre-existing psychological disorders or a more sensitive personality may experience debilitating symptoms to the point they are mentally or physically unable to do their job.  Each circumstance must be evaluated very carefully, making these types of cases extremely difficult to prove.

Medical & Legal Help for Psychological Workplace Injuries

Every person experiences psychological symptoms differently.  If you believe you may have experienced a work place induced psychological injury, it is important to visit a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist, as soon as possible. Signs an employee may be experiencing a psychological injury include a sudden drop in normal performance levels change, depression, withdrawal or anxiety.  As soon as your mental health care professional connects such symptoms with your work activities, as embarrassing or uncomfortable as it may seem, you must make sure your workplace is aware of the situation.  I often recommend to my clients to keep a daily work journal to document information such as dates, incidents and communication.

Please do not hesitate to contact the HQ worker’s compensation attorneys if you have questions about a psychological work place injury.

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