Six reasons you can’t ignore mental health in workers’ comp

Compensability of mental injuries in workers’ compensation is complex and varies widely by state. Some states allow compensability for physical-mental injuries, where a workplace injury leads to a mental condition, such as depression. Less common are allowances for mental-physical claims, where a psychological condition arising out of the worker’s employment causes a physical illness, such as stress leading to a heart attack.

Mental-mental injuries involve a psychological occurrence at work, which leads to a psychological injury or condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They’re controversial, limited, and have gotten a lot of attention lately as states have considered new laws, especially for first responders.

Similar to physical injuries, in order to be compensable, the mental injury or condition must arise out of and occur during the course of employment. Given the subjective nature of mental health claims, pre-existing conditions, and the time it takes for conditions to manifest, they can be contentious and difficult to prove under this standard.

However, the issue is not just compensability. Whether or not these injuries are compensable, they can greatly impact the cost of the claim, productivity, and morale.

Here’s how:

  1. They can have a significant impact on the duration of a claim. An expert commentary on IRMI notes that more than 50 percent of injured workers experience clinically-related depressive symptoms at some point, especially during the first month after the injury. Unresolved chronic pain, lack of coping skills, fear of job loss, are just some of the factors that lead to “disability syndrome” – the failure to return to work when it is medically possible, with claim costs spirally out of control. When physical treatments aren’t making progress, it’s time to start thinking about psychological factors.
  2. Mental health conditions are some of the costliest health issues to treat and result in harder-to-quantify costs such as lost productivity and absenteeism. Untreated, employees have the potential to become an unsafe worker, which can affect other employees.
  3. While mental workers’ compensation claims represent a small percentage of all claims, many experts note they are growing. Greater awareness of these injuries by all stakeholders, efforts to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, attorneys advertising on TV, poor work-life balance, the modern 24/7 workplace, successful court cases, all contribute to rising frequency.
  4. According to a recent article in Business Insurance, Reviews of psych claims in comp increase, “requests for independent medical examinations for workers compensation claims with a psychological condition are rising, in part due to greater awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and an increase in workers seeking treatment for depression and anxiety in conjunction with a physical injury.” Psych IMEs often are costlier than physical exams, driving comp costs higher.
  5. PTSD is increasingly a common condition in claims, but often it’s added later. This makes it difficult to determine if the claim is legitimate or malingering, an attempt to prolong the claim.
  6. Although mental health remains a taboo subject in many workplaces, changing workplace demographics reflect a generational shift in awareness. More and more employees feel a company’s culture should support mental health. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 62% of Millennials say they’re comfortable discussing their mental health issues, compared to 32% of Baby Boomers. Providing employees with the support they need improves not only engagement but also recruitment and retention.

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