When someone suffers an injury from a workplace accident, the focus tends to be on identifying and treating the physical effects of that injury. However, physical injuries can also have psychological effects that prolong workers’ recoveries and prevent them from returning to work years after the initial event. In New Jersey, workers may be able to receive worker’s compensation benefits for their mental stress injuries, in addition to their underlying physical injuries.
The Connection Between Physical Injury and Mental Health
A work injury may require surgery, ongoing medical treatment, or physical therapy. It can also make it difficult to resume daily activities, such as cooking, driving, and keeping up with personal hygiene. Another consequence of a physical work injury that often goes untreated pertains to mental health; some physical injuries can also affect the mind in addition to the body. Many injured workers experience post-injury depression and other co-morbid mental health conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a physical incident.
There are various reasons why a worker may experience mental health problems following a physical injury, such as the following:
- Inability to resume day-to-day activities as normal. Workers who are seriously injured may have difficulty resuming their daily activities as before the injury. Workers may become depressed because of these limitations, which may include not being able to cook for themselves, bathe themselves, hold their children, or drive themselves to their doctor’s appointments.
- Side effects of medication. Some medications that injured workers are prescribed may have psychological side effects. For example, opioid medications that are often used to treat pain may cause cognitive impairment, changes to the brain, and addiction. Other medications have side effects such as fatigue, which can exacerbate existing mental conditions.
- Sustained anxiety about finances. Those who are injured at work may worry about how they will support themselves and their families now that they are unable to work or unable to earn the level of income they did before the injury. Sustained worry about such issues can lead to chronic anxiety and/or depression.
Psychological Issues Delay Return to Work
Generally, workers with mental health issues connected to their work injuries do not return to work as quickly as those who do not suffer psychological effects. Various studies have confirmed the connection between occupational injury- related mental health problems and return to work.
In the year following injuries that require emergency care, depression is the most frequent psychological diagnosis, according to a study published in the Psychological Medicine journal. Typically, there is a higher prevalence of depression up to three months after a workplace injury occurs.
However, mental health issues often remain a concern well past the one-year mark. A survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that severe psychological symptoms within one year after occupational injury are relevant risk factors for not returning to work up to six years after injury. Six years after an occupational injury, 10 percent of the workers who responded to the survey did not return to work. The rates of workers returning to work within two years after a work-related injury ranged from 31 to 79 percent, significantly lower than the 52 to 87 percent range for those who returned to work within two years of a non-work-related injury.
In addition to mental health issues that prevent return to work, other factors may also explain the lower return to work rates among those with work-related injuries, including the following:
- Fear of re-exposure to the hazards that caused the injury. Workers may be hesitant to return to the same workplace where their injury occurred or to another workplace where a similar hazard is present.
- Lack of accommodation from employer. Employers may not be willing to accommodate an employee who sustained a workplace injury, especially if the injury resulted in a workers’ compensation claim.
Does Workers’ Compensation Cover Psychological Illnesses?
Psychological illnesses may be covered by workers’ compensation, depending on the state in which the claim is filed. To recover, workers must generally prove that their mental illness was caused by their job. If the mental illness could have been caused by factors other than the worker’s job, benefits may not be available.
In New Jersey, employees may recover for any compensable occupational disease, including those arising out of and in the course of employment. The state workers’ compensation statute does not differentiate between physical and psychological injuries; rather, psychological illnesses arising from conditions peculiar to the claimant’s work may also be compensable, in addition to the traditionally covered physical work-related injuries.
New Jersey workers must show that actual events of employment were the main cause of their injury. To prevail, they must also provide a psychiatric injury diagnosis or other evidence of a mental injury that prevented them from working. Therefore, work injuries that lead to psychological injuries may be covered if it can be objectively verified that the psychological injury was caused by the claimant’s work and not his or her lifestyle and other non-work-related factors.
Filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim in New Jersey
Both physical and mental injuries alike may form the basis for a workers’ compensation claim in New Jersey. Workers have even been able to recover for mental injuries related to work that were caused by a psychological stimulus rather than a physical injury. However, workers must be able to provide objective proof that the disability was caused by their employment; a worker’s opinion or the opinion of coworkers is not sufficient.
To qualify for benefits, injured workers must notify their employer as soon as possible and file their claim within the statute of limitations, which in New Jersey is two years. There are several types of benefits for which an employee may qualify, including the following categories:
- Medical benefits. Workers’ compensation covers all necessary and reasonable medical treatment associated with work injuries or illnesses. To receive medical benefits, a worker must see the doctor authorized by his or her employer, if one is designated, unless there is an emergency or the employer inappropriately refuses to provide treatment.
- Temporary total disability benefits. Those who are unable to work for more than seven days as a result of their on-the-job injury or illness may receive temporary disability benefits. Injured workers may receive 70 percent of their average weekly wage, up to 75 percent of the Statewide Average Weekly Wage (SAWW).
- Permanent partial benefits. This type of benefit is awarded when a work injury or illness results in a partial permanent disability. Losses may be categorized as either scheduled or non-scheduled, according to which body part is affected.
- Permanent total benefits. When a worker is unable to return to any type of gainful employment following a work injury, he or she may be entitled to permanent total benefits. Such benefits are provided on a weekly basis for 450 weeks initially, after which the benefits will continue only if the worker can show that he or she remains unable to earn wages.
- Death benefits. Dependents of workers who die of their work-related injuries or illnesses may be eligible for workers’ compensation death benefits. Death benefits are 70 percent of the deceased worker’s average weekly wage, up to the SAWW limits, to be divided among surviving dependents such as the deceased worker’s surviving spouse and children.
Cherry Hill Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Pietras Saracino Smith & Meeks, LLP Help Workers Obtain Benefits for Mental Illness
If you are suffering from a work-related mental issue, contact the Cherry Hill workers’ compensation lawyers at Pietras Saracino Smith & Meeks, LLP. Our experienced legal team knows what it takes to file a successful claim for mental stress and other psychological injuries. We are here to advocate for you. Call us today at 856-761-3773 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients in Camden, Cinnaminson, Delran, Maple Shade, Pennsauken, and throughout South Jersey.