Physical work injuries are easy to identify. Whether it’s a herniated disc, a torn meniscus or even Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, physical injuries are generally pretty easy to see and diagnosis. But what about psychological injuries like depression, anxiety and PTSD, where there is no visible herniation, tear, nerve impingement or other physical pathology? Should an injured worker be stopped from making a claim for compensation for a psychological injury just because you can’t physically see it? Of course not.
Vermont Workers’ Compensation law is clear that psychological injuries that arise out of and in the course of employment are just as compensable as physical injuries. The difficulty lies not so much in the existence of a mental health injury, but rather the cause. Because of the inherent difficulty in pinning a cause on injuries that can’t be seen, the Vermont Department of Labor has established two categories of psychological injures; “physical-mental” claims and “mental-mental” claims.
A “physical-mental” claim arises when the mental injury results from an actual physical injury at work. A classic example of a covered “physical-mental” claim is the injured worker who develops depression due to the pain and financial hardship following a traumatic back injury at work. In these claims, the Vermont Department of Labor only requires the injured worker to establish some causal nexus between the physical injury and the psychological impairment.
The seriousness of the physical injury does not matter so even if the physical work injury is minor any mental injury that flows from it is covered, even if the scope of the mental injury far exceeds the physical injury. The key is that there must be a connection between the physical and mental injuries so mental health conditions that flow from things like general dissatisfaction with your employer or stress created from litigation does not form the basis of a covered Worker’s Compensation claim. Nevertheless, mental or nervous injuries following physical injury are almost always covered under Vermont workers’ compensation. For more information on “physical-mental” claims, see Blais v. Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.
A “mental-mental” claim arises when the mental injury results from workplace stress and not from an actual physical work injury. Because of the higher degree of uncertainty in diagnosing the cause of “mental-mental” injuries, the Department of Labor requires an injured worker in these claims to prove not only that job-related stress actually existed, but also that the stress is significantly greater than the daily stresses encountered by similarly situated employees. Under this test, for example, a tow truck driver who develops depression after observing a particularly bad car accident scene may have a compensable “mental-mental” claim while the nurse who treats the victims of the accident in the emergency room probably wouldn’t. The difference between the two is that tow truck drivers generally don’t deal with the stresses of witnessing a bad car accident on a daily basis while ER nurses treat accident victims all the time. For more information on “mental-mental” claims, see Crosby v. City of Burlington.
All too often, injured employees focus solely on the physical effects of their work injury without even contemplating the effects the injury may be having on their mental health. Even worse are those employees that may not even realize they are suffering from the effects of a mental health condition resulting from extraordinary workplace stresses. Whatever the situation, as worker injury lawyers we understand the importance of ensuring that you receive compensation and medical treatment for all of your work injures, including the ones you can’t actually see.