How to make yourself less vulnerable to employee lawsuits claiming disabling workplace stress.
In the chaos that is workers' compensation, perhaps nothing else jangles a company owner's nerves like an employee's stress claim. Increasing job pressure, mind-numbing routine, and harassment can cause disabling stress. Physical manifestations of stress, such as heart attacks, can amplify a claim.
It's tough to gauge how much stress is due to working conditions; litigation (and sometimes fraud) thrives on the uncertainty. However, if you're based in one of the approximately 35 states that still permit stress claims, there are ways to make yourself less vulnerable to lawsuits.
First, it's important to realize that the claimant must prove that a percentage of the disabling stress comes from the workplace and is not part of the job's requirements.
According to Jim Walsh, author of Workers' Comp for Employers (Merritt Publishing, Santa Monica, Calif., 1993, $29.95), job descriptions should itemize all responsibilities to make it clear that certain kinds of stress are part of the job. A claimant's lawyer will look for a sudden increase in job stress. A potential line of inquiry: "Did you fail to replace a departing supervisor and expect subordinates to pick up the slack?" Keeping work logs will help counter such charges.
Formal attempts to help employees cope with genuine stress -- such as an employee-assistance program -- can count in your defense, Walsh says. He also recommends that you set standards for the treatment of stress when you sign up with a workers' comp health-care provider. Make it clear what symptoms would prompt a referral to a psychologist and what would happen in the meantime -- for instance, would the employee return to light-duty work?
There's another problem with stress claims: they're too easy for a CEO to dismiss. Claimants may be warning you about real problems -- burnout or sexual harassment. "Sometimes it's better if there is a real problem, because you can solve that," Walsh says.