Rising Workplace Stress Has Big Impact on Comp
Eight out of every ten American workers report being stressed by at least one thing at work, according to a study by Nieslen, a market research firm. Long commutes, too-heavy workloads coupled with stagnant pay, and poor work-life balance account for the top stress-inducers.
The impact of poor mental health on physical recovery is well-known in the workers’ comp world, but as stress and anxiety become bigger issues in the workforce, it’s worth taking a longer look at how high levels of stress affect claims, and what employers can do to mitigate those effects.
States vary in how they approach claims of mental or psychological injuries at work, but by and large they are not compensable. The employee bears the burden of proving that their mental condition — usually anxiety or depression — rose directly out of some extraordinary circumstance of their employment; normal workplace demands are not deemed sufficient reasons for a claim.
“There’s a lot of variance, but most states don’t recognize any form of mental-mental dynamic in terms of a compensable workers’ comp claim,” said Trey Gillespie, senior director, workers’ compensation at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “Typical work-related stresses, in terms of getting work done and dealing with bosses and co-workers, are generally not a basis for a claim.”
“There are circumstances in which an employee can be compensated for workplace stress, but there are a lot of ‘buts’,” said Bruce Wood, vice president and associate general counsel, American Insurance Association. “States have erected speed bumps or barriers that a claimant would have to pass to be compensated.”
Those speed bumps include higher evidentiary standards for compensability. Employees must present a preponderance of evidence that clearly and convincingly establishes their work environment as the primary cause for their psychiatric condition — a tall order when other stress-inducing factors like personal finances or troubles at home come into play.
In most states, in order for a mental condition to be compensable, it must be accompanied by some sort of physical injury. But again, proving that mental stress led to a physical disorder — such as a heart attack, high blood pressure, or other cardiovascular condition — can be difficult.
That’s why these types ‘mental-physical’ claims are not common, but could see an uptick if U.S. workers continue to report high levels of stress connected to unreasonable workloads or long hours.
Some states make exceptions for causes involving PTSD or depression stemming from either experiencing or witnessing a traumatic injury. Connecticut, for example, strictly prohibits mental-mental claims with no physical component, but is seeking legislative amendments to its workers’ compensation act after the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012.
“Teachers and first responders came upon a horrific scene, and may face PTSD or other emotional distress,” Wood said. “There’s an attempt to change the law to eliminate the prohibition on mental-mental, or to specifically state that where a trauma is witnessed, that trauma constitutes a physical component of a valid claim.”
Even where mental stress does not constitute a compensable claim, everyday pressures and anxiety nonetheless worsen the outlook of a purely physical claim.
“If a worker has an injury and is trying to get back to their norm, meaning getting back to work in some capacity and back to their usual routine, anything that delays that recovery can trigger some psychological conditions,” said Deidre Doyle, vice president of quality and continuing education at Procura, a Healthcare Solutions company. “That could be stress, anxiety, depression or all three.”
Doyle also said she believes workers’ comp payers will see more mental health issues as secondary diagnoses on claims going forward.
“Stress has a negative impact on overall health and return to work outcomes, and a growing body of evidence supports that,” Gillespie said.
The good news is that, while stress-free work environments may never be the norm, employers are becoming more receptive to employees’ mental health needs.
“There’s been a trend for the past 20 years or so in which employers fully understand how day-to-day work environment affects performance and also length of time off due to injury,” Gillespie said. “There are proactive movements in human resources departments to create environments where employees feel valued, and to not set an adversarial tone if a worker becomes injured.”
However stress comes into play during a claim, whether as a contributing factor to or result of a physical condition, it’s clear that employers and their workers’ comp providers can improve outcomes and save dollars by recognizing the mental component of an injury early and attentively.
Chemical Release Injuries Not Covered by Comp
BP Products may be on the hook for injuries to more than 300 workers after an alleged chemical release. A federal District Court in Texas said the company did not prove that the injuries were work-related. Attorneys and other experts are closely watching the case as another potential attack on the exclusive remedy defense.
“I don’t think it’s a major blow to the exclusive remedy defense at this juncture,” said Thomas Robinson, JD and author of workcompwriter.com. “As the case moves forward, that might change.”
More than 500 plaintiffs said they were injured by the chemical release at the BP refinery in Texas City in November 2011. More than half were identified as workers at the refinery or at a Dow Chemical plant nearby while others were nearby residents.
“BP sought partial summary judgment on the negligence and strict liability claims of 315 ‘worker’ plaintiffs, contending in relevant part that workers’ compensation insurance claims were the exclusive remedies for the workers plaintiffs alleged injuries,” Robinson explained.
The court said at trial BP Products would have to prove the employees were covered by workers’ comp and that their injuries were work-related, meaning they occurred in the scope and course of employment. While the company did show the workers were covered by workers’ comp, the court said it failed on the second element.
“Defendant provided the Court with no evidence that the contractor plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were work-related,” the court said. “Defendant did offer excerpts from signed fact sheets prepared by each individual client.” However, the excerpts “show only each plaintiff’s identifying information and information about his or her place of work and job position in November 2011. Nothing in the fact sheet excerpts indicates where or when plaintiffs believe they were exposed to BP’s alleged chemical release.”
But the court said that could change. “The court would look favorably on a renewed motion for summary judgment on claims that may be subject to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation after discovery into the circumstances of the workers’ alleged injuries is complete.”
Diversifying Top Management in Workers’ Comp
The panel at the inaugural Women in Workers’ Compensation (WiWC) Forum. From left to right: Eileen Ramallo, Elaine Vega, Nina Smith-Garmon, Nancy Hamlet, Michelle Weatherson, Nanette de la Torre, Danielle Lisenbey.
Across the country, the business community is engaged in a robust conversation about women being under-represented among c-level positions.
Why aren’t more women breaking into upper management roles? Does gender bias still exist? And, perhaps more importantly, what can women and men do to add more diversity to top leadership ranks?
Elaine Vega and Nancy Hamlet, of Healthcare Solutions, the Duluth, Ga.-based health services provider to the workers’ compensation and auto liability/PIP markets, have discussed the issue between themselves many times over the years.
The duo agreed that starting an industry-wide conversation would be an effective start to addressing the challenge. After three years of internal discussions, the inaugural Women in Workers’ Compensation (WiWC) Forum became reality. Judging by the attendance, content and feedback, it was an auspicious, very successful, debut.
Specifically, Healthcare Solutions and LRP Publications teamed up at the National Workers’ compensation and Disability Conference (NWCDC), held Nov. 18-21, 2014 in Las Vegas, to present the first WiWC event focused on the development of women as leaders within the industry. The WiWC debut featured a keynote speaker, a panel discussion and a networking cocktail hour.
“We believe this is just the beginning for the WiWC organization,” said Hamlet, senior vice president of marketing, adding that the event’s main theme was the conversation regarding challenges that still exist for women in the workplace is “current, real … and relevant.”
Originally the forum was allocated a room to hold 150 people. Vega and Hamlet worried about the room being too large, so they asked LRP what the contingency would be to make the room smaller if they couldn’t fill it. They needn’t have worried, as more than 400 women, and some men as well, registered and attended, requiring an even larger room.
“Clearly, the topic is relevant and there was plenty to discuss,” said Vega, senior vice president of account management.
Hamlet explained that WiWC was formed to create an open forum to promote a strong sense of community and support for current and future female leaders in the workers’ compensation industry. Going forward, the WiWC forum will provide insight and ideas with opportunities for members to:
- Engage … with accomplished industry professionals and build lasting relationships.
- Enrich … their knowledge base with tactical insights from speakers and panelists.
- Explore … opportunities and challenges facing women leaders today.
- Encounter … senior executives’ perspectives on leadership.
- Examine … leadership strategies and how to effectively apply the strategies.
- Empower … themselves and others to achieve success and groundbreaking results.
At the inaugural event, keynote speaker Peggy Holtman, co-author of “Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition,” discussed how a seemingly unconnected historical event can offer critical lessons on leadership in the workplace, especially for women looking to move into top executive spots.
After Holtman’s talk, a panel discussion, moderated by Vega, offered the perspectives of five workers’ compensation industry executives on ways in which women can navigate past the glass ceiling. Panelists included Eileen Ramallo , EVP Healthcare Solutions; Danielle Lisenbey, CEO Broadspire; Nanette de la Torre, VP Zenith; Nina Smith-Garmon, EVP Mitchell International; and Michelle Weatherson, Director, Claims Medical and Regulatory Division, State Fund of Calif.
The panelists discussed a wide range of topics related to women in workers’ compensation. For example, one topic focused on the need to take the big risks when it comes to moving past workplace barriers. Other topics included the importance of women in higher positions serving as sponsors and advocates for younger, less experienced women; and the impact of industry consolidation on women’s careers and how to best manage that change. Another topic was how women could best master conflict and emotions in the workplace.
“What’s clear is conflict has to be managed; it will not go away. It will only get worse,” said Healthcare Solutions’ Ramallo. “It then can create other rifts that won’t necessarily be visible immediately, but can have a very large impact. You have to be able to understand what it is early on from another’s perspective, why the situation exists, and then encourage and try to resolve a conflict situation, whatever may be driving it.”
In the wake of the first WiWC Forum, Hamlet noted that while there are countless general reports showing that women have not yet achieved equal representation in top leadership positions in the workplace, studies deal with averages rather than individual stories. And while women must continue to look at the data and work toward closing the gap, hearing from accomplished women in the workers’ compensation industry at NWCDC drove home critical messages on a person level.
Today, Vega and Hamlet are looking to expand WiWC to make it “truly owned” by the industry. For example, they expect to recruit companies interested in becoming sponsors, forming an advisory council, creating a charter and discussing future possibilities for the organization on both the national and regional levels.
“Much remains to be done, but I have confidence that we will come together and make the organization stronger so that it prospers for years to come,” Hamlet said. “After all, it’s clear that our industry is filled with talented women who can make things happen!”
Vega added that WiWC has already received requests to live stream the event in the future, so it will examine the feasibility of that option in an effort to be even more inclusive.
“We have a shared vision for improving opportunities for current and future women leaders in workers’ compensation,” Vega said. “It doesn’t matter our gender or our title, it’s all about supporting the greater vision. As was said several times at the event, this is just the beginning. We hope more women and men will join us in this continued dialogue.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Healthcare Solutions. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.