The year 2022 was particularly black in terms of work accidents, with 653,510 work accidents causing sick leave and 564,701 without sick leave, according to data from the Ministry of Labor. Among the many causes of these accidents at work, one is particularly controversial: stress. Disputes over whether or not stress, anxiety, or other mental health-related illnesses can be considered an occupational accident are common to reach the courts. Although there is a consensus when it comes to declaring that fatigue is not an occupational disease because it is not included as such in the list assessed by Royal Decree 1299/2006, the determination of whether or not it is an accident at work does not have a conclusive answer and it is necessary to analyze it on a case-by-case basis.
The experts consulted agree that what is necessary for stress to be considered an occupational accident is to establish that the exclusive cause of the identified mental or emotional illness is work. To conclude whether or not such a causal relationship exists, the judge will assess in each case, as noted by Sara Olaparia, Principal Fellow at Abdoun Piedragas Littler, the symptoms and expert diagnosis, the duration of leave, the worker’s psychological and psychiatric history and the context of their work. Once these basic objective criteria have been examined, adds Jorge Saraza, business partner at Sika Magan Abogados, it will be necessary to analyze whether work is the only reason. The lawyer develops whether or not there are other circumstances causing the stress, if the company has occupational hazards and preventive measures to reduce or reduce the stress and if other factors outside of the work or not have given rise to it.
Precisely, the fact that other motivating elements did not aggregate, such as the personality most prone to illness, caused the nurse’s anxiety caused by threats from the patient’s relatives to be classified as an occupational accident by the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) of Castilla y León. The July 2021 ruling states that “it may be appropriate, as a guideline, to establish whether a mood disorder would occur in the majority of persons placed in the same work situation.”
The absence of previous operations for temporary disability due to anxiety and the clear link between symptoms and labor dispute were crucial, in a recent ruling, for the Supreme Court of Justice of Cantabria to consider a worker’s post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of harassment by colleagues as an accident at work. The clerk was an officer in a staff of seven workers, all male, who addressed her as “the blonde” or “officer”, and had one of them run her over with a steam cart.
On the contrary, the TSJ of Murcia ruled out in 2004 that the “burning agent” syndrome (Burnt) was an occupational accident in a situation where, with a depressive history of the worker and in a work context in which no particular stress was observed, the cause-and-effect relationship between work and illness has not been established. Recognizing an illness as an accident at work rather than a common illness or emergency makes an important difference. “Being an accident at work greatly improves the economic level of social security benefits that this situation generates, in addition to having additional financial liabilities, such as possible compensation from the company for damages and losses,” explains labor attorney at Casadelli Law Firm Alvaro San Martín.
This means that if the employer does not provide workers with sufficient and effective protection to prevent or resolve situations that may lead to work stress, they may be sued by the employee who falls ill, who must be compensated for the damages caused. What’s more, San Martín adds, if the work-related accident resulted from a breach of occupational hazard prevention obligations, Social Security could penalize the company by paying an additional fee on Social Security benefits or even paying them out in full.
However, Olabaria points out, for a worker to be entitled to compensation, there must be a negligent violation by the employer. In this sense, the TSJ ruled in Catalonia in April 2022 when it denied the company’s liability in the event of a work accident due to stress, because the worker was not informed of the problem until it was too late to address it.
It should be noted that it is possible for there to be more than one responsible person who is obligated to compensate an employee who has had an accident at work due to stress. For example, recently A Barcelona court has ordered the General of Catalonia and the Ministry of Justice to compensate an official in the amount of 46,500 euros for work stress. Which caused a very long conflict years ago because of the confrontation between the judge and the administration of justice lawyer. In this case, the worker shares the workplace with employees of the Ministry of Justice, which is why the public administrations (Generalitat of Catalonia and the Ministry of Justice) have had to coordinate risk prevention activities, including psychological and social risks.
Similarly, warns Saraza, “If an employee is identified as the proximate cause of the illness that led to the work-related accident, he can also be sued with the company.” The expert adds that in these cases it is always appropriate to sue the employer’s insurance company to determine whether or not a work accident is covered by a policy.
The rights of the heirs
The heirs of a person who dies as a result of an accident at work due to work stress have a series of rights and different ways to claim responsibility. In the first place, Alvaro San Martín, partner at the law firm Casadelli, lists death and survival benefits (such as a widow’s or orphan’s pension), and adds a lump sum compensation the amount of which depends on the specific beneficiary. Second, they may charge an additional Social Security benefit fee of 30% to 50%, depending on the severity of the crime, when the employer is found guilty of neglecting security measures. Finally, they have the right to claim compensation for damages and losses resulting from the work accident.
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