Any job can be stressful, but some employees claim their jobs literally are making them crazy.
But does that mean that employees whose jobs drive them nuts have an occupational disease? If so, are they entitled to workers’ if they cannot work anymore? And what role do the employee’s own contributions to the stress (through ) play in deciding whether the employee should get benefits?
Those are questions the North Carolina Supreme Court considered in a recent landmark decision.
The case: Barbara Hassell worked as a teacher for the Onslow County Board of Education from 1987 until February 2002, when she left work after being warned that her teaching was not up to par.
All had gone well with Hassell’s teaching career while she worked at elementary schools. But in 1996 she was transferred to a middle school and immediately began having trouble managing the classroom and maintaining order.
Hassell dreaded going to work because of student disciplinary problems—she felt her students didn’t respect her. Turns out they didn’t. Students and parents complained about her.
School administrators tried to work with Hassell, instituting four “action plans” designed to improve her performance. An observer the administrators sent into her classroom concluded she still wasn’t meeting standards. That’s when Hassell walked out.
She then filed a workers’ compensation claim. In it, she alleged she suffered from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), one of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders in the United States. Hassell’s claim asserted that the condition qualified as an occupational disease under North Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws.
Her psychiatrist testified that Hassell was unable to return to teaching and that her “job was driving her nuts.” He said GAD was an occupational disease caused by the teaching environment.
The North Carolina Industrial Commission rejected the psychiatrist’s reasoning and refused to approve the benefits. In its ruling, the commission implied that Hassell had caused her own stress and was therefore partially responsible for her condition. It said that she had failed as a teacher because of her inadequate job performance. Hassell appealed.
The Court of Appeals ruled she had failed to show that GAD was an occupational disease or that her work was a significant contributor to her illness. Hassell appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The high court first looked at whether the state could deny workers’ comp benefits simply because Hassell may have contributed to her own illness, presumably by being unable to control the classroom or teach well. It said her contribution, if any, could not be used as a factor. That’s because workers’ compensation is a no-fault law with few exceptions.
But then it concluded she had not proven that GAD was an occupational disease. It dismissed her case. (Hassell v. Onslow County Board of Education, No. 172A07, Supreme Court of North Carolina, 2008)
Final notes: This may not be the end of the issue. The Supreme Court dismissed Hassell’s case because her expert psychiatric witness didn’t do a very good job explaining why he thought GAD was an occupational illness.
No doubt other employees will try again, and for a wide variety of psychiatric illnesses. Employees who can prove that their mental illness is due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to their jobs may fare better.
The door is open for claims from police officers, firefighters, emergency technicians and just about anyone whose work is very stressful.
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