Mental Stress: Can I Get Workers' Compensation for This in Virginia?

Jerry Lutkenhaus

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In my 30 years of practice as a Virginia Workers’ Compensation Lawyer, I have had many claimants contact me and say my work or my supervisor is causing me mental stress. Many times these claimants have gone to a psychiatrist or a psychologist for treatment. Often, the impairment has become so severe they have been taken out of work. They want to know can they be compensated for their lost time through the Virginia Workers’ Compensation system. They say (1) my stress happened at work and (2) my doctors say I have lost time and incurred medical bills due to this stress. They say why cannot I be compensated under the workers’ compensation law?

The short answer is “NO" as a general rule mental stress is not compensable. Gradual infliction of mental stress by your work or by your supervisor is not an “accident" or a “disease" under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation law. As defined by the Workers’ Compensation Commission, an “accident" to be compensable must occur at a specific time and thus gradually occurring mental stress cannot qualify as an accident. It is also not an occupational disease unless it can be shown that mental stress is “characteristic" of only that employment which is normally an impossible burden. The Commission has said in the past problems associated with personnel and management are inherent in all employment.

The first exception to the above rule is if the claimant's work is in a particularly high stress occupation it is possible for a claimant to show his or her “mental stress" is characteristic of the employment. For example, the Commission has found an emergency dispatcher was employed in an occupation where stress was characteristic of the employment.

The second exception to this rule is if the claimant has a compensable “accident" or “disease" that aggravates or causes mental stress or depression then the aggravation may be compensable. The typical example of this is the worker who has a severe injury which results in chronic pain. The pain causes depression. In that instance, the depression will compensable. Of course, the treating physician must make the connection between the accident and the stress.

A third exception to the general rule that mental stress is not compensable is if the mental stress arises out of a single specific incident. A typical example of this would be the rescue squad worker who has to go to the scene of a horrible accident and develops a mental impairment due to the exposure to the accident. I had a case involving a school bus driver who had a student point a gun at her head and pull the trigger. The gun was not loaded but the driver developed a post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident and the Commission found her claim to be compensable.

In summary, even though your boss has treated you badly, harassed you and has made you go to a doctor and lose time from work, your mental stress is not compensable under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act. Also, even though you have deadlines to meet which has caused you stress, it is not compensable in Virginia. Nonetheless, you should always check with an experienced Virginia workers’ compensation attorney. Your problem may meet one of the exceptions I have listed above.

Submitted by Jerry Lutkenhaus. Please contact me: or you can reach me at I have been representing Workers Compensation claimants for 30 years in the Central Richmond Area in Virginia. Martindale Hubbell awarded me its highest rating of “AV" in 2003. In the July 1999 issue of Richmond Magazine I was recognized as the One of the Best Workers’ Compensation Attorneys in Central Virginia


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