Mental Stress Workers’ Compensation Claims
Under Maine workers’ compensation law, there are two categories of mental “claims,” and they may be described as mental health, mental stress, psychological, or psychiatric injuries. The first category is the psychological sequela or physical-mental claim, which is how we often describe the mental health effects of a serious physical injury. The second category is the pure mental or mental-mental claim, which refers to the mental health effects of stress in the workplace.
Psychological sequelae do not arise from every work-related physical injury, but they happen more frequently than the average layperson may realize. The mental health effects of chronic pain, insomnia, loss of earning capacity, and limited physical functioning are well-documented in medical literature, and many of my clients have developed disorders like anxiety and depression. On occasion, the mental effects of a physical injury become more disabling than the physical disabilities. A further complication arises in cases where the distinction between the causes is not clear, especially with cases of head injuries.
The “pure mental” injury — “Mental injury resulting from work-related stress” — is a difficult case to prove in Maine because our workers’ compensation law requires “clear and convincing evidence” of two things. First, the “work stress” must be “extraordinary and unusual in comparison to pressures and tensions by the average employee,” which refers to the average employee in the state’s workforce, not the average employee in that job. Second, the work stress must be “the predominant cause of the mental injury.” “The amount of work stress must be measured by objective standards and actual events rather than any misperceptions by the employee.” That means that something innocent that the employee misunderstands or a minor stressor that the employee reacts to in an unusual manner is not sufficient work stress. And a “mental injury” is not work-related for workers’ compensation purposes if it is caused by a good-faith “disciplinary action,” termination, or anything else along those lines.
All of these claims require expert opinions from physicians or psychologists, and a good workers’ compensation attorney should be able to evaluate the medical or psychological records to get a sense of the strength of an employee’s claim.