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Can an Employee Claim Compensation for Stress or Anxiety at Work?

Stress will always be a part of work.  Deadlines, conflicts with co-workers, confusing expectations from superiors, and long hours away from home are tough to deal with by many.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 72% of Americans say that workplace stress and anxiety interfere with their lives.  Because of this, the workplace is seeing a trend in employees seeking compensation for emotional distress.  What are an employer’s rights and can employees sue for stress at work?  In this article, we will try to explain what employers need to know.

Can an Employee Receive Worker’s Compensation for Emotional Distress?

The answer to this question depends on the injury.  Stress, anxiety, and other health-related claims are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  Because it can be difficult to prove the medical extent of these injuries, worker’s compensation for stress in Florida is usually not an option unless the stress is related to a physical injury.  In addition, stress and injury must have a significant impact on one another.

Florida law allows a worker’s compensation claimant to get additional benefits for stress if they can adequately demonstrate the link between the mental condition and the injury.  The employee’s physical injury must be at least 50% responsible for his/her nervous condition.  The claimant must also have a diagnosis and prognosis from a licensed psychiatrist according to the criteria established for mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association.

Additionally, worker’s compensation will only provide benefits for anxiety related to the compensable injury.  In other words, the employee cannot be paid for psychological injuries related to being out of work, suffering pain, losing out on job opportunities, or resulting from a pre-existing mental condition.

Please keep in mind that an employee may only claim emotional distress benefits for up to six months after the date that their physical injury reaches maximum medical improvement.

Can an Employer be Sued for Emotional Distress?

This is often a complex matter because emotional distress is not a physical injury.  First, let’s examine the two types of emotional distress according to the law.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

If an employee’s emotional distress is caused by his/her employer’s negligent actions or conduct, an employee may sue for NIED.  An employee must prove that their employer acted negligently or in willful violation of a statutory duty and that they suffered emotional distress as a result of those actions or conduct.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

This is often referred to as “tort of outrage” because it is based on extreme or outrageous behavior that is intentional and reckless in nature.  An employee must prove that the employer acted intentionally or recklessly, the employer’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, the employer’s actions caused the employee emotional distress and that the employee’s emotional distress was severe.

Proving a Claim for Emotional Distress

There are several questions that need to be answered to address an emotional distress claim.

Did the employee raise the issue with their employer in accordance with any internal policy or procedure?

How did the employer respond when the issue was raised?

Did the employer take all reasonable measures possible?

If the stress and anxiety was the result of bullying, did the employer take any investigative or disciplinary action in respect of the offender?

If anxiety was being caused by the way the employee works, did the employer carry out a risk assessment or make any adjustments to the employee’s working practices?

Can an employee be terminated for taking too much time off for "stress"?

If an employee has been diagnosed with severe or chronic anxiety, they cannot be fired because it is a protected diagnosis under federal law.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects chronic conditions that limit “bodily function”.  However, the company must be a private employer with more than 15 employees to be covered by the ADA.

If an employee has not been diagnosed with severe or chronic anxiety, there is a good chance that the employer can fire that employee for taking too much time off, especially if they are an at-will employee.  At-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, with or without notice, as long as it doesn’t violate the state’s public policy doctrine, or a state or federal statute.  Florida has adopted laws that protect employers in at-will employment.  Unless an employee has signed some sort of employment contract that states the employee cannot be terminated without good cause, they are most likely at-will employees.

Of course, termination should be an employer’s last resort.  Creating a work environment that decreases stress is often a win-win situation.  Employees that are constantly stressed have lower productivity rates than those who are not.  Employers that are able to reduce work-related stress often experience happier, healthier employees.  While the purpose of this article is not to instruct employers how to reduce stress levels, it is encouraged that they research this area if they suspect their employees may be experiencing some sort of emotional distress at work.

When You Need Answers, Contact Me

I’m Rob Robinson and I have been practicing labor and employment law for the better part of 30 years.  Even with at-will employment, a company can make costly mistakes when dealing with their employees.  Stress and anxiety in the workplace should be handled carefully by an employer.  Contact my office and let my experience guide you through the complexities of employment issues such as work-related emotional distress and anxiety cases.

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