Litigation awaits for insensitive employers

2006

Can workplace stress lead to injury and disability? The American judicial system seems to think so. And now American employers may be facing a future of increased liability and hefty court settlements for employee psychological claims.

A hospital maintenance worker was recently awarded an $11.65 million jury verdict in Federal District court in Chicago against his employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

While on leave to care for his parents who were having serious health problems, his supervisors implemented a new system that evaluated employee performance on the amount of work completed.

In addition, even though his supervisors were aware of his leave, they were inflexible and refused to adjust his work load – eventually firing the worker citing poor performance. The jury decided in favor of the plaintiff.

Legal websites and newsletters are more frequently featuring similar incidents to forewarn the legal profession of evolving precedents. There is a new trend in the judiciary – employer liability exposure in matters of employee emotional injury is increasing.

Some insurers are now offering Emotional Injury Liability insurance and the demand for coverage is escalating.

Judges and juries are linking musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, psychological disorders, suicide, cancer, ulcers, impaired immune function and workplace injuries to a wide spectrum of emotional workplace stressors.

In an article in HR Magazine, Jathan Janove reports an increase in employee suits related to "discharge, demotion, pay cuts and other adverse employment actions."

According to Janove, employees sue not because of the specific action but because of the emotions created by the "perceived insult."

According to a 1999 study in Ohio, "employees who were not treated with dignity and respect were 35 times more likely to file claims (emotional injury) than those who were." Employee anger becomes employer litigation; a threat to employer liability and a risk management nightmare.

Surveys by Northwestern National Life, the Families and Work Institute and Yale University all show that between 30 to 40 percent of the workers report being extremely stressed at work. The new trend is to perceive all work stress as synonymous with emotional distress.

Management style is surfacing as a key cause of emotional injury

Management style is surfacing as a key cause of emotional injury. Inflexible and abusive supervisors are catalysts for emotional outbursts fueled by other work factors like long hours, limited control, environmental conditions and interpersonal conflicts.

A study conducted by Arie Shirom, Mina Westman, and Samuel Melamed on "The Effects of Pay Systems on Blue-Collar Employees' Emotional Distress" found that pay for performance systems "may be hazardous to their psychological well-being," and "contingent pay systems exerted a negative influence on employees' somatic complaints and depression."

Surveys and commentaries about reward and recognition programs have recorded employee discomfort, embarrassment, and frustration (emotional distress) with certain practices.

For decades, the American worker has suppressed their anger about indignities and disrespect experienced because of an anachronistic class system perpetuated by inadequate leadership models. They harbored a burning anger that is finally finding expression and recourse in a sympathetic generation of judges and jurors.

The world of stress and injury is being redefined. Traditional work stressors as determinants of physical disability are being reframed and replaced by a converging view that emotional causation is the primary source of all disabilities – both physical and psychological – emotional injury is the root of all employer liability.

Employers of choice anticipated the link between empathy, respect, empowerment and employee emotions and started committing resources to address these issues during the last decade.

The majority of US corporations have failed to do so thereby creating a broadening source of legal challenges by employees who are "as mad as hell, and they're not gonna' take it anymore."

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About The Author

Jerry Pounds
Jerry Pounds

Jerry Pounds is a management consultant with over 30 years of experience in applying positive reinforcement, reward, and recognition strategies to business and industry. He has written and spoken on the application and problematic nature of corporate motivational and rewards programs and trained thousands of executives, managers, and supervisors in the use of praise and rewards.

Older Comments

Absolutely nauseating. We are entering a new age of mediocrity, where the merits of the competent and hard-working cannon be rewarded for fear of “injuring” the inept and lazy. Having equal access to a job is the right of any member of a free society. Having the right to keep a job that you do poorly, or having the right to be treated with “dignity and respect” when you can’t be counted on to do what is minimally expected of you and likewise of all your coworkers is the framework for the complete arrest of productivity and progress. Once upon a time, if you felt that you weren’t being treated fairly by your employer, you simply found another job; secure in the confidence that you could find another employer that would appreciate your competence and best effort. Those who lack this confidence are probably being treated fairly because they acknowledge that they aren’t doing a very good job, and shouldn’t expect to be rewarded with empty praise.

Casey Rochester, MN

It is not secret that corporations by definition are reactionary and rarely are proactive in addressing issues that impact employee moral, motivation and productivity until it hurts them financially and so it is with stress related issues. Workplace violence, bullying, sexual harassment and anger are very real issues in the workplace and all of them have in common stress as a major contributor. Corporations can do themselves a favor by addressing the underlying issues that cause stress in organizations and they will significantly reduce the cost of litigation as well as these afflictions that haunt employees. Pragmatically we will never eliminate stress from the workplace, but reaching a balanced point is very doable by paying attention to how managers manage, organization culture and focusing on how to reduce the stress that is not necessary.

Barry Nixon www.Workplaceviolence911.com

After working for a company that mistreats and overworks all employees to the benefit of the company's prosperity, I think it is about time that these firms become accountable for their actions. You would be surprised how many companies out there have no HR policy and refuse to stick to the federal labor laws. Then they think that we, the employees, who produce the earnings of the company, should be just grateful to have a job at all.

Charity Salt Lake City
Bruce Lewin London, UK

My employer (work in a mental health hospital) overworks and belittles employees constantly. Over the past year i would say about 20 people have left. We all say the same thing we wake up go to work get home and go to bed no family time, because we are EXHAUSTED. Meanwhile this jerk goes all over on the hospital monies to 'Conferences' we have not got a raise in 4 yes four years. THe workload is sick believe me, we do not spend time with patients because we are so worried about all the paperwork and that is his main concern. I am a social worker and truthfully i really do not even know my patients, all i know is the CHART. When a patient says you never even spoke with me, it;s like 'yeah O.K. like I have time for that. Meanwhile these are the same people we are sending back into society. What do we do???? We are all so frustrated, we went to school for a Masters degree to help people HA! This boss does not give a hoot about people, his motto spend all your time with the CHART not the patient. I swear if you asked me today what one of my patients looked like I would NOT know.

rather not

Casey in Rochester-Are you nuts-you must be a manager. They are not talking about lazy, inept employees. They are talking about overworked, underappreciated and underpaid employees. Did you really say 'simply found another job.' Hello-where have you been. There is a major recession going on so people can't simply find another job so they are stuck in a job that can be ruining their health because they can't quit. This prolonged stress will definitely lead to an emotional and mental injury. And it can all be avoided if managers are trained to treat and deal with employees in the manner they deserve. Of course, if they have employees that are not doing their part-that has to be addressed but not in a belittling or abusive manner. These employees need their weaknesses addressed and given a change to improve and if that doesn't work, then termination might be the only option.

Maria