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. 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."