"I can't stand the pressure of this job one moment longer!"
For workers who feel that way, a new string of decisions from courts and administrative agencies holds out some real hope. If you mean what you say, these rulings suggest, the states stand ready to pay you while you take a long rest. In fact, you may never need to work again.
That's because more and more jurisdictions are recognizing that on-the-job stress can be considered a serious medical problem, triggering workers' compensation payments just as would a leg broken in a fall on a slippery plant floor. A new legal specialty is developing as a cadre of lawyers begin to take on stress-related claims. The classified section of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, has a special category for ads from such advocates. "Emotional Disability Arising Out Of Severe Stress On the Job?" a typical ad asks. "You may be eligible for Workers' Compensation benefits."
And as claims mount, so can workers' comp insurance premiums charging employers with a consistent record of causing such mental ills. "These days, coping with current claims and avoiding future ones are giving employers themselves a bad case of job stress," notes Business Week magazine in a recent article on the trend.
Only nine states have ruled that workers' compensation does not cover stress-related problems, according to a review of current state laws by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). The majority of states will pay only if the stress results from some sudden or unusual circumstance, but six states have allowed employes to collect even when the stress resulted from the normal demands of the job.
For instance, Helen J. Kelly was so upset by the news that, after working for Raytheon Co. for 33 years, the company planned to transfer her to another department, that she suffered a nervous breakdown. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that she had a right to workers' comp, and she collected $40,000. That decision "enormously extends" liability for emotional reactions to "everyday personnel decisions," says Walter P. Muther, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
Ten years ago, such rulings were virtually unknown because employes didn't even file workers' comp claims for emotional problems, unless those ills arose from a physical injury. Now, according to an NCCI sampling, emotional problems account for approximately one claim out of every 40 filed nationwide. In California, where the tendency toward stress seems especially strong, 4,236 claims were filed last year for stress-related impairments, 3 1/2 times the number filed in 1980.
And the numbers are sure to increase. For one thing, as Samuel A. Roth, an employe relations staffer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, puts it, "We are getting into grayer and grayer areas." Situations that would not even have led to a claim two years ago now may result in an award. Only one state, Michigan, has legislation on the subject; 15 states lack even case law on the issue. That means the battlegrounds are numerous for those advocating a liberal compensation policy to challenge those who want to hold the line.
But the changing attitudes of workers are another reason litigation is mounting. Mental ills no longer are viewed either as something to be hushed up or something that is the fault of the victim. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health lists as one of its main goals the reduction of stress in high technology operations; this goal stems directly from NIOSH findings that psychological ills are among the leading medical causes of time lost from work.
One of the clearest indicators of that change in attitude comes from the profile put together by NCCI of employes who file stress-related claims. Almost half of the filings are by women and the average age of the claimants -- male and female -- is 38. The average age for all other types of injury is 41. Those results "could indicate that a new generation of workers who are more prone to stress, or at least more willing to view their emotional problems as compensatable injuries, is maturing into the work force," NCCI vice president Donald T. DeCarlo explained to Business Week's Resa King.
There are some indications, too, that employes are using stress disability as a comfortable way out of difficult personnel situations -- a way for someone having problems to ease into a kind of paid early retirement. For instance, Don Tombe, a San Francisco consultant who advises companies on gay personnel issues, says that often a gay manager, restive because his company will not promote him, will strike a deal with the firm to quit because of stress disability.