Cameron Mackay* The modern workplace has become a major source of stress and anxiety, raising mental health red flags repeatedly across multiple professions and businesses.
Stress in the legal industry has been something we have reported on frequently, but it is just about any business and profession that has major issues with work-related stress.
For instance in a recent poll, Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report, demonstrated that US workers were the most stressed in the world. U.S. and Canadian workers, whose survey data are combined in Gallup’s research, ranked highest for daily stress levels of all groups surveyed.
Some 57 per cent of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, up by eight percentage points from the year prior and compared with 43% of people who feel that way globally, according to Gallup’s 2021 report.
A variety of issues are open to those seeking to take legal action for stress and anxiety, as well as other claims.
How to Bring a Workplace Stress Claim
Different jurisdictions have different procedures regarding bringing a workplace stress or anxiety claim.
In the US there is certainly the ability to bring a lawsuit for mental distress such as stress or anxiety, which includes the ability to claim compensation for lost benefits such as unpaid leave.
For instance, in the UK, the best forum to hear a legal claim is in the employment tribunal, which is less expensive and there is no risk of having to pay the opponent’s fee should the claim not be successful.
In Australia the Fair Work Act 2009 includes prohibiting discrimination for issues like mental health problems, including stress and anxiety, and complaints can be sent to Fair Work Ombudsman. Claims can be brought in Court for both personal injury and constructive dismissal.
Whatever the jurisdiction, when a claim for workplace stress or anxiety is brought, it is necessary to establish that the situation is higher than the norm – something beyond what would normally be expected of a reasonable employer.
Legal action over stress and anxiety
The US Situation:
Taking legal action for stress and/or anxiety at work, or any other mental health condition requires proof of a number of things under federal law or the appropriate state law that applies.
These are similar to a personal injury claim, albeit more complex in many ways due to the nature of proof of emotional distress and its proof. Often it is some employment discrimination or some type of discrimination but this is just one, more common area of discrimination.
It can be difficult, but preparing the necessary evidence will involve a look at a number of key factors including –
- proof that the working conditions were stressful, measured on an objective basis (rather than a mere subjective judgment)
- proof of the adverse effect of the stress upon the claimant
- evidence relating to any particular predisposition that they employee (claimant) has brought to the particular job and that relates to the stress and/or anxiety leading to the claim. This will involve medical treatment of the source of the emotional distress or other injury.
It is necessary to establish that the stress or anxiety (and whatever other similar issue arose) was reasonably foreseeable and that the employer could have taken reasonable steps to avoid the problem.
There is other legislation relating to discrimination issues and a wide variety of federal laws, 180 federal employment laws enforced by the US Department of Justice. The United States Department of Labor oversees and enforces more than 180 federal laws governing workplace activities . A list of the federal laws show their wide variety, including the workplace safety and health issues affecting those seeking to sue for workplace stress or discriminatory practices.
It is important to keep in mind the specific legislative requirements involving workplace problems. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) imposes serious restrictions upon workplace discrimination while the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the ADA.
There are federal laws like the Family Medical Leave Act which permits an employee to elect, or for he employer to require the employee, to use accrued paid vacation leave or family leave for the FMLA leave period. These federal laws are overlaid by state laws also which must be complied with in any legal action.
The emergence of mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and the extension of employee rights generally has ensured that any emotional distress case has peculiar uniqueness, requiring often specialist assistance from a law firm experienced in providing expertise in proving these areas.
The UK Situation:
The situation in the UK is mostly similar to the situation in the US and other Western jurisdictions.
It is necessary to establish certain key factors before taking legal action for stress or anxiety and all the offshoots from those actions such as emotional stress, anxiety disorder, panic attacks and mental health issues.
What are the key ingredients?
- Was the issue something that was brought to the attention of the employer?
- Did you comply with any procedures or requirements set out by the employer?
- What was the response of the employer and – if taken at all – did they take reasonable care?
- Was an perpetrator of bad behaviour (bullying? sexual harassment? Outrageous conduct?) punished or dealt with appropriately?
- For work-related stress or anxiety was there some assessment made regarding the way your work is conducted?
And, as with US stress and anxiety claims there must be medical eivdence showing that you suffered the stress or anxiety and that it was either originated by the work or made worse by it.
Forseeability (as described above) should also be established by the claimant regarding the stress or anxiety.
Stress & Anxiety Symptoms
Different manifestations of stress have been detailed in various ways and by a number of sources, such the American Psychological Association, who indicated that the various symptoms of anxiety and stress include such factors as –
- Muscle tension
- Rapid heartbeat
- Pain, like chest and muscle pains
- Colds and sickness
But there are also a variety of very serious results from equally serious employment breaches that create stress and anxiety. Any of them can lead to legal claims for civil action.
Mental illness that occurs from workplace stress is obviously extremely serious and would lead to a potentially substantial damages claim if the nexus between the workplace situation and the mental illness are proved.
Lawsuits for sexual harassment are reasonably prevalent regrettably and there are multiple examples of damages claims, some of which can overlap with claims for anxiety and stress workplace lawsuits.
However the link is more nebulous than many, but the stress/anxiety issue is one that can play a role in defending or prosecuting a claim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment is certainly one of the bases upon which an action for stress or anxiety can be based. To successfully sue in respect of a hostile work environment it is necessary to show that you have been the subject of some offensive or unwelcome behavior or illegal behavior that affected the ability to work within the terms of your employment terms and lead to the complained of stress or anxiety.
Rudeness or some unpleasant co-worker does not amount to working in a hostile work environments.
For instant, a boss who yells at people is not sufficient, but a boss who makes offensive comments about women, Black people, Muslims, or Asians can create a toxic work environment and because it targets specific groups is able to lead to civil action.
It is possible for an employee to take a personal grievance claim in most jurisdictions. In the US a claim for emotional distress requires that there is proof of some psychological injury as a result of discrimination for instance, and medical proof of injury from a mental health professional.
Most commonly the psychological stress will lead to physical injury.
Proof of the establishment of a case for a claim against an employer for stress or anxiety is a type of claim that requires professional advice both on a legal and health basis. Emotional distress claims have become more prevalent, particularly post-pandemic and with the growing emergence of PTSD and other mental illnesses that are more commonly recognized.
The best way to deal with them is to ensure there is a full recognition of local law, along with a good knowledge of the impact of the numerous federal laws that apply. The basis however of working on the basis of what is a ‘reasonable person’ will help determine whether there is a strong case to take in the claim against any offending employer.
Author: Cameron Mackay writes on workplace compliance and labor law issues affecting as well as psychological issues affecting employees and others. He also writes on issues for health content websites and publications relating to workplace health.