When stress warrants workers’ comp

Under some circumstances, an employee may claim her job is so stressful that she can no longer work and should receive workers’ comp benefits. That claim can succeed—if a court concludes that “abnormal” working conditions caused the stress, anxiety or depression that made it impossible for her to work.

But whether work is really abnormally stressful is a fact-specific question, as this recent case shows.

Recent case: Lauren was a caseworker for a county agency serving children and youth. Her job was to visit homes where child abuse or neglect was alleged and make sure the children were safe.

After more than two years on the job, she was assigned the case of a two-month-old infant who had been taken into protective custody but was then released to his father’s care. She visited the household, examined the baby and determined he was doing well. The next morning, she learned that the mother had put the infant in a recliner, closed it and left the baby there for the night. The baby died.

Lauren became upset and began receiving therapy for anxiety and related problems.

She eventually filed for workers’ compensation benefits, claiming she was unable to perform her job anymore. She alleged that the death of the baby triggered her psychological problems and that her working conditions were abnormal enough to warrant benefits.

But the court disagreed, based on the specific facts. Unlike other cases in which a traumatic event like an armed robbery triggered a mental injury, in this case the employer pointed out that child deaths were fairly regular for caseworkers, and thus not abnormal. Plus, the child didn’t die in Lauren’s presence. Her claim was dismissed. (Griffin v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Commonwealth Court, 2018)