The New Hampshire Legislature is considering a bill to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a covered condition under workers' compensation. The law would apply only to emergency services personnel, such as police, fire and paramedics.
New Jersey statute does not single out emergency workers or specifically recognize PTSD. But New Jersey courts have granted workers' compensation benefits for debilitating work-related stress. Any employee - not just police officers or rescue personnel -- can bring such a claim if they meet the strict criteria.
New Jersey first recognized stress claims in 1992
The landmark case (Goyden v. State of New Jersey) involved a court clerk who developed severe depression as a result of a massive filing backlog and other adverse conditions of his job. The Division of Workers' Compensation granted him total disability benefits. An appellate court reversed it, essentially saying the stress was self-inflicted. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed that decision and reinstated his benefits in 1992, reasoning that the employee had functioned in his job for many years before the backlog.
The Goyden case laid the groundwork for stress as a recognized claim under workers' compensation. New Jersey statute states that any injury or ailment - physical or mental - is compensable if it is caused by the work environment.
Lots of people have job stress. When is it compensable?
State law and the courts have established criteria for PTSD and other stress-related workers' comp claims:
- Objectively quantified - It is not enough that the claimant feels stressed. The claim requires empirical evidence of unusually or unreasonably stressful working conditions.
- A stress reaction - The employee experienced depression, panic attacks, hives, flashbacks, rage incidents, mental breakdown or other tangible response to or manifestation of the workplace stressors. (Sometimes these symptoms of stress/PTSD are used against employees in disciplinary measures and negative performance reviews.)
- Peculiar to the workplace - A clerical worker who witnessed a co-worker's fatal heart attack is probably not eligible for PTSD benefits. A police officer who witnessed a partner being shot and killed in the line of duty would presumably qualify.
- Medical documentation - There must be evidence of (a) a psychiatric condition that was (b) caused by the working conditions. Or, if the person already suffered from a mental illness or psychological disorder, medical evidence that the working conditions made their pre-existing condition unbearably worse.
Emergency services personnel are more susceptible to PTSD
Cops, EMTs, firefighters and 911 dispatchers have to be able to compartmentalize. But they are not immune to trauma simply because they are frequently exposed to trauma. The stress can be cumulative, especially without counseling or other outlet. This is part of the rationale for the bill proposed in New Hampshire.
Thankfully, New Jersey workers' compensation law already provides an avenue for law enforcement and rescue personnel, as well as workers in other occupations who have experienced extraordinary stress or trauma on the job.