Should “workplace stress” be a valid medical diagnosis?

A recent case saw a worker diagnosed with workplace stress awarded $10,000, prompting one workers’ association to call for a redefinition of stress.

Should “workplace stress” be a valid medical diagnosis?
An office worker who was diagnosed with “workplace stress” following “significant hurt and distress” brought about by her work environment was recently awarded $10,000 compensation as well as three months’ lost wages.

This has prompted a debate over the definition of “workplace stress”, as the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) has called into question how stressors can be eliminated with such a vague diagnosis.

The EMA suggested that stress is a symptom as opposed to an illness.

According to a safety and industrial relations spokesman for the EMA, Worksafe NZ’s guidelines do not accept stress as a diagnosis. He also claimed that the diagnosis of workplace stress is “unhelpful and subjective”, and called for the term to be defined.

“[Worksafe NZ] and ACC won't accept stress as a diagnosis, so why should other agencies?” he said. “So really it's about having some level playing field, it's about saying if we're going to use the [term] workplace stress then let's define it. Let's understand what it is, and more importantly what it isn't, because it's a very subjective term.”

He added that diagnoses need the definition in order to be more explicit and find the cause of the stress, so that employers can help to fix it. Because medical certificates are legal documents, he said, there needs to be more rigour involved when doctors provide them.

Health and safety laws require employers to try to fix work-related problems if they are detrimental to an employee’s health.

In 2004, a document from the Department of Labour gave guidelines for the determining and certifying stress. It said that stress-related conditions should be identified, and workplace conditions that contributed towards the condition should be given.

Dr Steve Culpan, a specialist in occupational health, told Radio New Zealand that stressed workers should be supported and encouraged to stay at work.

“Encourage employees to engage with the employer straight away in a supportive counselling system, to work out the source of stress and encourage them to stay at work,” he said. “Perhaps [suggest] doing work from home or working under a different direct manager, and accept that just staying away from work won't solve any problem.”

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