Can stressful communications with a supervisor add up to a workers' comp claim?

Employee alleges she suffered injury due to mental health

Can stressful communications with a supervisor add up to a workers' comp claim?

A workers’ compensation case before the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division arose when an auditor alleged that she suffered stress and/or anxiety while working, which caused elevated blood pressure, which in turn compounded her stress and/or anxiety.

The record of evidence stated the following: In October 2020, the claimant was discussing her work through a text-based conversation with her supervisor on Skype. The discussion and the additional duties that she was performing allegedly elevated her stress, angered her, and frustrated her.

During the conversation, she suffered symptoms consistent with an anxiety attack, including blurry vision and head pain, which she had not previously experienced despite having prescriptions for high blood pressure and anxiety or depression.

She left work, visited an urgent care center, then rode an ambulance to an emergency room for her headache and elevated blood pressure. She was admitted to an intensive care unit and was diagnosed with essential hypertension, migraine without aura, and hypertension urgency upon her discharge the next day.

Read more: Did stress due to hostile work environment cause psychiatric injury?

The employer challenged the employee’s claim for workers' compensation benefits. The employer alleged that there was no causal relationship, no medical evidence of an injury, and no evidence of stress greater than what similarly-situated workers experienced.

Worker’s claim denied

A workers’ compensation law judge rejected the employee’s claim.

The Workers’ Compensation Board upheld the judge’s decision and made the following findings. First, the claimant suffered no causally-related psychological injury. Second, the alleged increase in workplace stress resulted from a good-faith personnel decision and led to no physical injury or symptoms. Third, on the issue of psychological injury, the claimant’s alleged work-related stress was not greater than what similarly-situated workers experienced.

The claimant appealed. In the Matter of Sakanovic v Utica Mutual Insurance Co., the Third Judicial Department of the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the compensation board.

The appellate court explained the relevant law as follows. Psychological injury caused by psychic trauma was compensable to the same extent as physical injury. However, to get benefits for psychological injury, a claimant should show that the stress causing the mental injury was greater than what similarly-situated workers experienced in a normal work environment.

Next, the appellate court reviewed the record of evidence. The evidence demonstrated the following:

  • The pressures that the claimant encountered were not greater than what her peers were experiencing at that time.
  • Her peers were facing the same daily and hourly quotas for completing audits.
  • To the extent that the claimant undertook additional mail audits, her supervisor offered to assist with her workload if necessary.

The compensation board properly denied the part of the claim alleging a psychological injury and/or physical symptoms resulting from an increase in work-related stress, the appellate court said.

The compensation board correctly found that the claimant’s hypertension and other related physical symptoms that manifested from her work-related stress did not amount to a physical injury that would make it unnecessary to show that the stress producing such symptoms was greater than normal, the appellate court added.

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