Victims in Chicago and surrounding communities have the right to seek workers’ compensation benefits for work-related mental conditions. In Illinois, workers’ compensation benefits are generally available to victims who suffer injuries or illnesses while performing work activities, regardless of the type of damages that are sustained. Since many occupations expose workers to dangerous, violent or traumatic situations, and intense pressure and other extenuating circumstances sometimes occur, work-related injuries are not always physical. Stress, violence, accidents and other workplace traumas sometimes cause mental health conditions that may render an employee unable to work. Although these injuries may not be as immediately obvious as a broken leg or a severe burn, they can still be severely damaging or even disabling.
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Since obtaining sufficient evidence and documentation to prove the existence or severity of a mental condition can be extremely challenging, recovering workers’ compensation benefits for such is often more difficult than obtaining compensation for a physical ailment, and many applications are initially rejected. By learning more about job-related mental health conditions and how they are handled under Illinois law, disabled employees can improve their chances of a successful case.
Work-Related Mental Illness Is a Serious Issue
There are more than 200 types of mental illness that plague victims throughout the United States. According to recent statistics compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, more than one in five Americans will suffer from some form of mental illness during any given year. While some of these cases can be traced back to genetic factors or childhood trauma, other mental health conditions are developed or aggravated by workplace conditions or incidents. Some of the most common work-related mental health issues in America include the following:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Long-term effects of head injury
Work-Related Mental Conditions Could Change a Victim’s Life
These and other mental conditions result in a significant number of lost workdays and disrupted careers because they can significantly interfere with a victim’s ability to perform the daily requirements of his or her job. Mental illnesses can affect a worker’s ability to concentrate, filter out distractions, or multi-task. They can interfere with a victim’s ability to manage stress, interact with others, or respond to changes at work. In some cases, these conditions are so severe that they cause panic attacks, severe anxiety, or such intense depression that it can be nearly impossible for a victim to cope with even the most basic activities.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Workplace
According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, approximately 5.2 million American adults currently suffer from PTSD. The disorder is a complex medical condition that is difficult to live with and can be challenging to treat. It is caused by exposure to a violent or frightening experience in which a person suffers or is threatened by serious harm.
A number of careers, such as law enforcement, firefighting, corrections and emergency medical care, can expose workers to traumatic situations on an almost daily basis. Additionally, experiencing or witnessing severe accidents like those that often occur in dangerous occupations like construction, mining, and manufacturing industries can cause PTSD. Even when a workplace is safe, calm and well-regulated, a sudden disaster or trauma can cause PTSD in employees. Although severe turbulence in an airplane is almost never fatal, for example, many flight attendants report symptoms of PTSD after living through the panic and chaos of an unexpected turbulence event.
Employees who suffer from PTSD may develop symptoms immediately, or they can be triggered by events later on down the road. Flashbacks, irritability, an exaggerated startle reflex, violent behavior, panic attacks and concentration problems are all common effects of the disorder. These symptoms can make it difficult or impossible to continue working.
When workers are exposed to traumatic situations on the job they may respond by developing symptoms of severe depression. This is especially common in cases where an employee has witnessed the death or serious injury of a colleague, especially if he or she feels partly to blame for the incident. Additionally, workers sometimes become severely depressed while facing a significant work-related injury of their own, when they are under extreme pressure, or when they are victims of workplace harassment, violence or emotional abuse. Deprived of the self-esteem connected to their usual job performance, victims may become despondent and unable to return to work even after their physical injuries are healed or the other associated issues have been resolved.
Workers who develop severe depression often experience behavioral disturbances like excessive crying, agitation or withdrawal. They might also experience sleeping or eating disorders, cognitive impairments, and even physical symptoms like unexplained pain or chronic fatigue. Oftentimes, the effects of work-related depression are so significant that they interfere with a victim’s ability to maintain job performance. In such cases, many employees apply for workers’ compensation benefits while they treat the mental strain caused by the incident.
Severe Anxiety on the Job
Almost every career has its share of anxiety, but some cases are severe enough to cause temporary or even permanent disability. Employees exposed to crisis conditions on a firefighting crew or an EMT crew, for example, may be unable to continue work because of the cumulative effects of severe anxiety. While consistently demanding jobs are often the culprits in work-related anxiety cases, a single traumatic event in the workplace can cause the condition as well.
Persistent or severe anxiety can cause breathing problems, heart conditions, chronic pain, fatigue, tremors, cognitive impairments, hallucinations and panic attacks which may make it difficult or impossible to work.
Mental Health Problems after Head Injuries
Some work-related mental health conditions are directly linked to physical trauma on the job. Head injuries are especially insidious because of their lasting effect on the brain. After a concussion or other head trauma, an employee may appear to recover quickly and return to work unaffected in just a few days. The long-term repercussions, however, can be much more serious.
Traumatic brain injury can lead to memory problems, impulsiveness, changes in personality and loss of crucial job skills. All of these problems can leave employees temporarily or permanently unable to work in the aftermath of a head injury.
What Happens When a Worker Seeks Compensation for Mental Illness?
Obtaining workers’ compensation benefits to cover the damages associated with a work-related mental health condition is often a complicated and challenging process because sufficient evidence to support a claim can be difficult to collect. The burden of proof that a condition exists and was caused by a work-related event is on the disabled employee. Ultimately, it must be shown that a work accident, event or condition is the primary cause of the mental condition.
To prove a debilitating mental condition, a victim cannot simply show a burn scar or the stump of an amputated limb to demonstrate the extent of the injury. Psychological trauma can be more difficult to identify and prove. In cases of mental illness, a qualified physician must show that the condition is directly traceable to sudden or repetitive trauma in the workplace. The investigation may include multiple physical and mental examinations, as well as interviews, and other forms of evidence. The Workers’ Compensation Commission may even call on medical professionals to provide expert testimony.
Disabled Workers Can Increase the Chances of a Successful Case
An experienced workers’ compensation attorney may be able to help victims increase the likelihood of receiving workers’ compensation benefits for mental conditions caused by work-related trauma. While collecting documentation and witness accounts of the circumstances that led to the mental illness, medical records, psychiatric reports and other evidence that supports the claim can help a workers’ comp lawyer structure a stronger case, however, there are a number of things disabled workers can also do to increase their chances of obtaining appropriate work injury benefits.
- Inappropriate words and images can be detrimental to a workers’ compensation case. Disabled workers should be careful about what they do and say during the claims process. Even discreet postings on social media may compromise a case. An emergency medical technician who witnessed the death of several children when a building collapsed in 2012 was denied benefits for severe depression after a social media site showed videos of her dancing and joking at a Chicago nightclub.
- Before speaking about the details of the case, even with close friends or family, disabled workers should seek counsel from a legal professional. Even though an injury claim typically has nothing to do with a criminal defense case, anything a victim says can, and likely will, be held against him or her if the case goes to court.
- Insurance companies will generally do everything they can to manipulate injured victims into agreeing to settle for substantially less than they are entitled to receive. Thus, mentally impaired workers should refrain from discussing any form of settlement until they have sought legal advice from an experienced workers’ compensation attorney.
- Medical evidence is key to achieving a successful workers’ comp settlement or verdict. Injured workers who are experiencing the symptoms of a mental condition should be sure to seek assistance from psychiatrists and other mental health professionals and follow through with any treatment prescribed.
Sometimes Additional Legal Options Exist
Mental trauma is an unfortunate reality that invades the lives of injured workers in many professions. Fortunately, victims who are mentally traumatized on the job have options and, depending on the circumstances, filing a workers’ compensation claim may not be the only course of action people can take. When the negligence of other entities besides an employer contributes to a work-related mental trauma, they can often be held liable for personal injury damages as well. In addition to the damages recovered in a workers’ compensation case, victims who file personal injury claims against third parties may also be entitled to compensation to pay for lost wages, pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and more. In some situations, punitive damages are also awarded.
A workers’ compensation attorney who is experienced with work-related mental conditions can help victims sort through the complicated legal paperwork and procedures, collect and organize documentation and other evidence to build a strong case, and determine whether additional parties might be able to be held liable for the mental trauma suffered.