It’s not uncommon to hear a friend or family member talking about how overwhelmed they are at work. In the United States, our jobs are often a significant cause of stress in our lives. In fact, job stress costs the U.S. industry over $300 billion a year in absenteeism, loss of productivity, and stress-related accidents.
And when it comes to workers’ compensation, mental health conditions are a leading cause of disabilities; one-third of disability claims derive from mental health conditions like stress.
When present, stress and its side effects also increase claim costs and timelines.
So, what can claims professionals do to reduce the amount of stress employees experience and its impact on their ability to heal?
Stress should be accounted for when giving employers safety recommendations and managing claims. But before that can happen, it’s essential to understand the signs of stress and its impact on injured workers. In this article, we will cover:
- Whether workers’ comp covers stress
- The many ways stress affects claims
- What exactly work-related stress is
- Signs of work-related stress
- Tips to reduce stress in the workplace
- What can be done by workers’ comp providers
Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Job Stress?
When it comes to stress-related claims, there are two types:
1. The physical/mental claim: An injury results in a mental condition, like stress or depression (e.g., developing an anxiety disorder after getting harassed by coworkers or developing PTSD after a robbery where they work).
2. The mental/physical claim: The workers’ mental state due to work-related stress leads to an injury. This type of claim is less common and much harder to prove.
Stress claims are hard to prove because workers need to demonstrate how their stress came from work, did not come from life outside of work, and that their symptoms derive from stress.
Whether workers’ compensation can cover a stress-related claim is assessed case-by-case and depends on state law. Some states cover stress leave, but Florida law, for example, doesn’t cover stress claims unless an injury accompanies it.
Regardless of what your state does and doesn’t cover, worker stress heavily impacts how claims turn out.
How Worker Stress Affects Workers’ Compensation
When employees experience stress, it impacts workers’ compensation in several ways:
- There are more claims specifically for job stress.
- Stress results in distraction, leading to work accidents.
- Stress slows down the healing process.
- Anxiety about treatment may result in not following through.
- Stressed employees may intentionally postpone returning to work.
- Stress leads to secondary mental and physical illnesses that compound all of the above.
Research has shown that the mind has some power over the body and that stress leads to clinically significant delays in wound healing.
And unlike visible, physical illnesses, a stigma remains around mental illness that makes it harder to diagnose and treat. False information and portrayal in media often result in an unwillingness to admit to feeling stress, especially if one’s family or culture is unsupportive of mental conditions.
Combine this with the fact that it can sometimes take patients a long time to realize their condition—because stress builds up over time and can impact judgment—and it’s not too surprising that stress often goes untreated.
Overall, workers’ compensation claims due to job stress last about four times longer than other claims.
But before we can fix these problems, it’s important to understand them.
What Is Work-Related Stress Exactly?
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety defines job stress as:
“Harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of a job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”
Stress often manifests in other ways, including the following mental and physical ailments:
- Hair loss
- Chest pain
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
- And more
Stress continues to permeate our society. One survey revealed that 40% of workers consider their jobs extremely stressful.
Signs of Workplace Stress
Most safety concerns are easy to spot: incorrect signage, improper safety attire, lack of ergonomic support, and so on. But mental health is harder to gauge. You can’t always see an employee’s stress, and it can be even harder to spot when they work remotely.
An employee may feel stressed or overwhelmed if they express or demonstrate one or more of the following:
- Anxiety or depression
- Frustration or impatience
- Aggression or irritability
- Mood swings
- Discouragement or disinterest
- Diminished creativity
- Decreased initiative
- Decrease in work performance
- Increase in sick days or absenteeism
- Poor coworker relationships
If an employee or injured worker exhibits any of the above, it could be worth evaluating their work experience and discussing their mental health.
How to Reduce Stress in the Workplace
One of the best ways to solve a problem is to stop it at the source. In this case, that’s at the job itself. The most prominent causes of stress in the workplace are heavy workloads, long hours, not enough breaks, unfulfilling work that doesn’t utilize an employee’s skills, unclear job roles, lack of career advancement opportunities, and poor workplace conditions.
Workers’ compensation professionals can advise employers to use the following tactics and management methods to reduce these causes of workplace stress for employees.
Improve Workplace Communication
Reducing employee stress starts with open communication. Employers who regularly check in with their employees and make themselves available and approachable are more likely to form better employee relationships and understand when their employees are struggling. When appropriate, employers should also ask for feedback and include employees in decisions—especially ones that impact them.
Improving communications in these ways will help employees feel safe discussing their work-related concerns and create a more stress-free environment.
Give Employees More Control
As the boss, an employer has a level of control over their employees that will always be there. However, it’s usually better to avoid micromanaging or over-exerting that control. Giving employees some control over their responsibilities and how they tackle them gives them more power over their life and reduces stress.
Additionally, everyone works and thinks differently, so this allows employees to take care of responsibilities in the ways that work best for them, reducing mental exhaustion.
Be Realistic and Flexible With Work Schedules
When scheduling projects or deadlines, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your team’s capabilities to create realistic schedules. Expecting a job done in one week that takes two will only create undue stress. Employees will feel stressed to get the job done and then feel insufficient when it isn’t.
It’s also good practice to include room for error or emergencies. Allotting a certain amount of room for flexibility will allow you to keep your deadlines when other things come up.
Don’t Overload Employees
Employers should also be aware of the number of employees they have and what they can reasonably accomplish when taking on work. Taking on so much work that it overloads employees or assigning work in a way that overloads one employee will create excessive stress. To prevent overloading, avoid giving someone more work than they can handle during work hours.
Encourage Taking Earned Time Off
If employees have sick days or vacation days, it’s vital that they are permitted to take those days as needed. Time off is essential for resetting, relaxing, and reducing stress. Employers should also create a work environment where employees feel comfortable asking to take off days they have earned.
Write Out Clearly Defined Job Descriptions
Work is more stressful when workers don’t fully understand their role or place in the workplace. Managers can help reduce stress by writing clearly defined job descriptions with each employee’s responsibilities, tasks, and expectations.
Lead in a Way That Encourages Personal Growth
When spelling out the details of each employees’ role, it’s also worth noting where they can go. A great leader encourages growth, and knowing that there is a career path forward reduces one of the biggest causes of career-related stress. Managers should check in with employees to learn about their long-term goals and what fulfills them.
Establish Good Workplace Conditions
Working under good conditions is crucial, but what qualifies as good conditions varies from one job to another. For construction work, it could mean working with proper safety measures in place, a place to cool down, and minimal air pollution. For an office, it could mean providing proper ergonomic support.
Encourage Inclusivity and Diversity
There are many business benefits to implementing inclusive and diverse practices, including increased employee morale. By practicing inclusivity and diversity, you create a safer, more welcoming workplace place that reduces stress.
Moving Forward: Reducing Stress in Workers’ Comp
While reducing job stress will decrease stress-related claims, many employers won’t know how without the guidance of their workers’ comp providers. And that alone won’t solve stress issues in workers’ personal lives or stress that manifests as the result of a physical injury.
For these reasons, workers’ comp professionals must continue to learn about the possibility of stress and its impacts, hold open communication about it, and keep their eyes open to spot early signs.
Utilizing nurse case managers to provide the extra care and support injured workers need is also a strong step in the right direction. Telephonic case management can help free up the resources to make this possible.
Some workers’ comp programs set an example by using a questionnaire to identify injured workers at risk for stress and, therefore, a delayed recovery. They recommend those identified to a cognitive-behavioral health coaching program.
Lastly, workers’ comp and healthcare providers should offer translation and interpretation to limited-English proficient patients whose inability to fully understand medical and insurance conversations can compound an already stressful situation.
By taking these steps to reduce employees’ and injured workers’ stress, you can significantly decrease recovery times and claims costs.