Can I Get Workers' Comp Benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

You should expect an uphill battle when filing for workers' comp based on PTSD, but first responders may have an easier time getting benefits in some states.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

Most people think of post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as post-traumatic stress injury) in connection with soldiers who've been in combat. But people can develop PTSD after other kinds of trauma as well, including traumatic events at work.

If you're suffering from PTSD because of your job, you may be wondering if you can get workers' compensation benefits. The answer largely depends on where you live and the nature of the event that caused your symptoms.

How Can You Get PTSD at Work?

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), PTSD is a cluster of symptoms that happen after someone is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Some examples of workplace situations that might give rise to a PTSD claim include:

  • a police officer, firefighter, EMT, or other first responder has to deal with a particularly horrific or gruesome accident or scene of violence
  • a teacher witnesses a school shooting
  • an office supervisor is held hostage by an armed former employee who has decided to take revenge for a firing, and
  • a construction worker observes an unusual accident in which a co-worker dies.

People with PTSD re-experience the original trauma in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, upsetting memories, and emotional distress or physical responses to any reminders of the original event. They also have a range of symptoms from depression and anxiety to difficulty concentrating or sleeping.

Workers' Comp Claims for PTSD

Employees can suffer work-related psychological or mental problems in three different ways. PTSD is an example of what are called "mental-mental" claims (in workers' comp jargon), because it's a mental health problem that developed as a result of a mental or psychological condition at work.

Compared to so-called physical-mental claims (work-related physical injuries that cause psychological conditions, such as when chronic pain from a back injury leads to a sleep disorder), mental-mental workers' comp claims are much more difficult to prove—if they're allowed at all.

States generally have three different ways of treating mental-mental workers' comp claims like PTSD:

  • In many states, workers' comp covers these claims only if they were caused by certain kinds of extraordinary events. In Nevada, for instance, a stress-related condition will generally be covered only if it was caused by "extreme stress in time of danger" as part of the employee's work, although the state covers a broader range of stress-related injuries for first responders who witness death or shocking injuries from certain violent events (Nev. Rev. Stat. § 616C.180 (2022)). Often, as in Arizona, the triggering event must have caused some "unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress" (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 23-1043.01(B) (2022)). The Arizona Supreme Court has held that this doesn't mean the triggering event had to be outside of the employee's normal job duties, just that the incident itself caused stress that was unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary.
  • Several other states rule out workers' comp benefits for people who suffer work-related psychological conditions without any physical injury, although there may be limited exceptions for police officers and first responders.
  • A handful of states allow claims for psychological conditions caused by stress at work, even if it's gradual and not unusual for the job. However, employees may have to jump extra hurdles to prove their PTSD is work related. In California, for instance, the employment conditions must be at least 51% responsible for the psychiatric injury, and the employee must have worked for the employer for at least six months. (See details in our article on California workers' comp claims for mental or emotional injuries.)

Changing Laws on PTSD: First Responders, Police Officers, and Others

In a time when mass shootings and other violence at workplaces are distressingly common, lawmakers in some states are moving to loosen the restrictions on workers' comp claims for PTSD, especially for first responders. For instance:

  • Lawmakers responded to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, by passing a law in that state that allows workers' comp disability benefits (not just medical costs) for first responders who've developed PTSD after witnessing or participating in certain horrific events, like children being killed or other deaths that involve "grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience" (Fla. Rev. Stat. § 112.1815(5) (2022)).
  • Colorado expanded workers' comp benefits in 2018 to PTSD sufferers who witnessed certain kinds of traumatic events, even when they're part of the employee's usual work experience. In 2020, the state extended those benefits to workers who witnessed the events "audibly," as well as visually—which could apply to dispatchers at 911 call centers. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-41-301 (2022)).
  • Connecticut expanded the types of qualifying triggering events that could make police officers, parole officers, and firefighters eligible for workers' comp when they develop PTSD as a result of on-the-job trauma. (Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 31-275(16)(B), 31-294k (2021)).

Filing a Workers' Comp Claim for PTSD

If you file a workers' comp claim based on work-related PTSD, you can expect your employer's insurance company to scrutinize your claim very closely. This is especially true if you've ever filed a workers' comp claim before.

Even when you've received a formal PTSD diagnosis from a psychiatrist or psychologist, investigators are likely to dig into your personal life to verify that your symptoms are genuine and related to a qualifying workplace incident. Their tactics may include checking your criminal history and credit report, interviewing your coworkers and supervisors, and reviewing your previous mental health records.

The best way to document the severity of your PTSD symptoms is to obtain consistent treatment with a mental health specialist, preferably a psychiatrist or psychologist. In many cases, PTSD symptoms don't appear until months (or even years) after the triggering traumatic event.

When this happens, it can be especially challenging to prove that your symptoms are related to work. That's why it's so important to seek treatment for your symptoms as soon as you begin to experience them.

Ideally, your treating physician will carefully document your reported symptoms and provide a written opinion about how those symptoms limit or prevent your ability to work. Statements from friends, family members, and co-workers addressing your observed limitations can also help your case.

Types of Workers' Comp Benefits Available for PTSD

If your workers' comp claim is approved, you should be able to get reimbursed for the costs of treating your condition. You might also qualify for temporary disability benefits when you're out of work recovering, or permanent disability benefits if doctors concluded that your PTSD permanently limits your ability to work and earn a living. But many states place strict limits on disability benefits for psychological injuries (or prohibit them altogether).

How a Workers' Comp Attorney Can Help With a PTSD Claim

If you suffer from PTSD as a result of an incident that took place while you were working, you should speak with a workers' comp lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney who's experienced in this area should be able to explain the workers' comp system in your state, including whether PTSD claims are allowed and in what circumstances.

A good workers' comp attorney can also help you file your claim, meet the strict deadlines, anticipate and counter the insurance company's inevitable arguments against your claim, and represent you if you need to file an appeal. In addition, your lawyer will work with your doctors, therapists, and counselors to develop the medical evidence necessary to prove your case.

Generally, workers' comp lawyers charge only a limited percentage of the benefits you win or receive in a settlement. So you don't pay anything up front, and there's no fee if you lose.

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