Workplace stress injuries are usually of the physical variety, stemming from repetitive movements that cause muscle strain and conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. And in rare cases, work-related stress can result in compensable mental or emotional injury. In the sections that follow we'll take a closer look at both kinds of on-the-job stress injuries.
Physical stress injuries are fairly easy to identify. Examples of physical stress injuries related to work could include an administrative assistant suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome due to typing, a person who stocks shelves at a warehouse suffering a chronic back injury from heavy lifting, or a construction worker who has suffered nerve damage from excessive use of a jackhammer. In all these examples, an employee performs an activity at work over a period of time and suffers a physical problem as a result.
What are your options when it comes to these kinds of repetitive stress injuries at work? You ordinarily cannot file a lawsuit against your employer because of workers' compensation laws (which are in place in every state), but the workers' compensation system does provide a remedy to injured employees.
Under the worker's comp system, are entitled to a portion of your average earnings while you are out of work receiving treatment due to the injury. In most cases, to receive these benefits, you must make a timely incident report to your human resources department and/or to your company's insurance carrier, and get the workers' compensation claims process started. Ordinarily, you must seek medical treatment so that a physician can determine whether your condition was indeed linked to jour job duties and functions. As part of the claim process, you may be required to undergo an Independent Medical Examination by a doctor of the workers' comp insurer's choosing, to confirm that your injury is work-related. While this exam is deemed "independent," it is usually anything but. You might want to contact an attorney before going through such an exam.
In any event, for any repetitive stress injuries that were not preexisting and are related to your physical activity on the job, as part of your workers' compensation benefits you should be able to receive:
To learn more about the benefits available under a workers' compensation claim, see How Much in Workers' Compensation Benefits Will You Get?
Once you return to work (assuming you can), make sure to ask your employer to take steps to help you, such as making sure your work station is ergonomically correct, or limiting your lifting until you have fully recovered. Of course, make sure you follow your doctor's advice about restrictions on your activity at work as you heal from the work-related injury.
Emotional stress injuries are more difficult to prove and, therefore, it is harder to receive compensation for them. Worker's compensation laws vary by jurisdiction, but in some states, they do not cover claims for emotional stress. This may be because it is more difficult to demonstrate that emotional distress resulted from your job as opposed to another area of life outside work.
If the conduct that causes you stress is egregious though, and if it is not covered by worker's compensation, it may be actionable outside of the worker's compensation system. That is, it may be possible to file a personal injury lawsuit for negligent infliction of emotional distress, or even intentional infliction of emotional distress. Typically, you'll need to prove some pretty outlandish conduct on the part of the defendant (your employer or a co-worker), so these kinds of claims would usually involve more than just typical on-the-job stress.
In some states, you may be able to pursue an state employment or social security disability claim for job-related stress and anxiety, but these claims also set a pretty high bar. See Nolo's Disability Site for information on these types of claims.
So, if you feel that you are suffering from emotional stress at work, what can you do? First and foremost, tell someone about it. Discuss it with your superiors and, if necessary, make a formal report. Such documentation will become a part of your employment file and could be useful evidence no matter what type of action you decide to take. If your company has specific rules about the way claims are reported, including to whom they are made, whether they need to be in writing, or whether there is a time limit for filing them (i.e., they must be filed within 60 days from the date of the event causing the injury), make sure that you follow those rules so that your rights will be protected.
It may also be helpful to talk with trusted co-workers and to have them make notes about events they personally observe, in case you need witnesses. Finally, keep a journal. Write down dates and events, who was present, what was said, and how you handled it. Be as specific as you can. The more detail you include, the more helpful if will be later if you decide to pursue a legal remedy.