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Mental duress can cause more than just frazzled nerves — stress can lead employees to make more mistakes, instigating workplace accidents and potential injuries.
Stressed employees are more vulnerable to conditions such as fatigue and lack of concentration that increase the odds of a physical workplace injury, and employers should expand efforts to identify and help alleviate the stress and possibly lower their workers compensation claims, experts say.
There’s a high correlation between stress and workers comp claims, said Michael Weier, an occupational epidemiologist and retired workers comp attorney based in Ashland, Oregon.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean stress caused those claims, but stress is certainly associated with that,” said Mr. Weier, a member of the International Epidemiological Association based in Chicago. “People who have much greater stresses at home would be more likely to file a claim than others. Workplace stress also has a significant correlation” to filing a comp claim.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America report, 63% of Americans said they are experiencing a significant source of stress due to the uncertainty of the future of the nation, while 43% cited health care, 31% cited crime, and 22% cited wages as issues causing stress. In addition, 75% of Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress over the past month in 2017 vs. 71% in 2016.
“Stress plays over into your ability to function at work,” said Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Now, is there a direct causation between that stress and an accident? No. But what we do know is that added stress increases the probability of accidents and injuries because added stress diminishes memory and concentration, can increase fatigue, leads to poorer muscle coordination and affects every aspect of our sympathetic nervous system.”
The odds ratio of having a workplace accident is significantly increased for employees experiencing moderate to high psychological distress, according to a 2010 study of 60,000 employees at 58 large employers published by the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.
“I think that if you look at work-related stress in general, it’s the number one workforce health issue,” said Anne Kirby, chief compliance officer and the vice president of care management at Chicago-based Rising Medical Solutions Inc.
In Rising’s Macroeconomic & Social Factors’ Impact on Claim Outcomes report in December 2018, the company found that programs that address psychosocial issues such as stress, mental health and comorbidity had a positive impact on workers comp claim outcomes and costs, and found that psychosocial health, along with comorbidities, was the main barrier to achieving desired claim outcomes.
A survey released in February by Welltok Inc., a consumer health technology company, found that 64% of employees said they feel stressed at work, and only a third felt that their companies provided them with tools or resources to reduce work stress.
Heidi Werth, the Denver-based company’s director of solution design, said their research revealed a gap between what’s offered at the workplace and what employees are aware of to help them manage their stress.
“Stress obviously has a lot of comorbidities associated with it,” Ms. Werth said. “From an employer perspective, they want healthy employees. If people are less stressed or better able to cope with their stress, their comorbidities decrease, they’re happier and their claims costs trend down.” “Employers are really faced with a difficult situation,” Mr. Weier said.
“On the one hand, they want to help employees potentially suffering from a mental health problem. On the other hand, they need to maintain an employee’s privacy and don’t want to make it public, so to speak, that somebody is struggling.”
But trying to improve the overall health of the workforce proactively and identify the issues affecting workers can make a difference, said Joe Galusha, group managing director of risk control and claims for Aon PLC in Southfield, Michigan.
Mr. Galusha said he’s seen a steady increase in mental health claims, but he is uncertain whether it is more prevalent or just more acknowledged today. What he has seen, however, is a strong correlation between musculoskeletal disorders and mental health claims, many of them stress claims.
“I know it’s trite, but I think surveying workers and regularly checking in on employee’s health and wellness … can point us in the direction we need to be focused on and lead us to corrective action,” he said.
Offering stress reduction help through an employee assistance program is another option. Mr. Weier suggests employers remind employees of the availability of mental health help during regular safety training as a way to help alleviate any stigma.
Ms. Kirby said that while she hasn’t studied workplace injuries at companies ranked on the “best of” workplaces lists, she noted that they typically have programs in place that focus on their employees and their well-being.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that those companies tend to have very low injury incidents and very high work satisfaction,” she said.
Stress can affect an employee’s return to work after an accident, but employers can alleviate it by thoroughly explaining the workers compensation claims process to injured workers, experts say.