The next time you’re at a party, count how many pleasantries you exchange before the topic of work arises. I’d lay some pretty good odds that “what do you do” is a heavy favorite as the question most likely to follow the initial glad-handing and introductions. In a nation where 44 percent of Americans call themselves “workaholics,” work is a fundamental determinant of how many of us feel about the quality of our lives.
As a result, when the dignity of work is shattered by exploitation or mistreatment, the impact can be psychologically damaging. At the same time, because work occupies nearly half of our waking lives, it is possible for someone to be simultaneously distressed and employed (with no link between the two) or distressed because they have to work (and looking for a way to get out of it).
Recognizing Work-Related Emotional Distress
The most typical psychological illnesses suffered by emotionally injured workers are various forms of either depressive or anxiety reactions. For example, anxiety is more prevalent during harassment because the person is still engaged in the struggle to remedy the situation, is still suffering from the anticipation of further incidents, and is still in a state of alarm and vigilance. However, if they feel they have had to quit work because of the abuse, were wrongfully terminated, or were retaliated against for filing a complaint, a more insidious process ensues involving feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and other symptoms of depression. Naturally, these two periods are not distinct and there can be significant overlap of symptomotology.
In contrast, the development of either a psychotic episode or post-traumatic stress disorder is not a common reaction to employment situations. The former is likely to be an exacerbation of a preexisting condition, while the latter is generally reserved for an extremely traumatic situation involving physical assault or rape.
Why Didn’t You Do Something?
One of the biggest psychological hurdles facing a plaintiff’s attorney is debunking the commonly held juror belief that, were s/he in the victim’s shoes, s/he would do something about it. Women imagine they would be confrontational, but most women, when faced with actual harassment, rarely speak up. Researchers consistently find that women who are actually harassed react very differently than those who respond to hypothetical situations; for example, imagined victims anticipate feeling angry, but actual targets report being afraid.
Other research suggests that many women avoid disclosing harassment for fear of losing their jobs and sabotaging their careers. Those with a lot to lose—single mothers, for example—are especially leery of blowing the whistle. In speaking out about mistreatment, employees may trigger social isolation, professional devaluation and job loss. On the other hand, if they suffer in silence, their physical and mental health may suffer as well.
The Vulnerable Employee
A well-respected colleague of mine once got involved in a very complicated love triangle involving a younger woman already involved with an abusive, married man. Despite repeated advice to “cut and run,” he spent countless hours trying to rescue this young woman. When he failed, he suffered a serious depression that seemed far out of proportion to the length of the entanglement or his intellectual understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships. However, given his childhood experiences of repeatedly trying – and failing – to defend his mother from his father’s battering, my hunch is that this particular situation had specific emotional significance to my colleague and, as a result, he was psychologically vulnerable to an extreme reaction to the current situation.
Under California law, a defendant takes a victim “as he or she finds him.” This means that a vulnerable plaintiff may be suffering from a preexisting mental disorder and still recover damages for any “aggravation” or “exacerbation” of the symptoms of that disorder. It also means that, for those employees who have deep seeded vulnerabilities due to their childhood, a relatively minor trauma can evoke significant distress. In sexual harassment situations where the harasser is in a position of power, the perpetrator may either knowingly or intuitively prey upon the very preexisting vulnerability that the defense will claim should lessen the plaintiff’s recovery of damages.
A Defense Perspective
Of course, every company has its share of slackers. The poor performer who can point an accusing finger at a supervisor or coworker can sometimes muddy the waters of personal responsibility. An employee who is sick of work is vastly different than an employee who is sick because of work, and a forensic psychologist is sometimes the defendant’s best partner in figuring out who is what.
In addition, employees can be psychologically impaired for reasons other than work. For example, over the course of several months, a pharmaceutical sales rep suffered a series of life stressors; his mother was killed in an automobile accident during which he was the driver, his youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia, and his marriage deteriorated. His behavior at work also became increasingly paranoid and erratic and his manager urges him to seek professional help. He refuses, threatens to sue the company for defamation and emotional distress, and is eventually terminated. Clearly, the employee’s deteriorating mental health significantly impacted his ability to successfully do his job but the precipitating stressors clearly had nothing to do with his work situation.
The Bottom Line
Work-related emotional distress claims are often a complicated puzzle involving an employee’s mental health, work performance, and coexisting or précising life stressors. A forensic psychologist can often be an invaluable asset in determining whether a plaintiff is sick at work, sick because of work, or sick of work. And, as far as the jury is concerned, a key to success is likely to be portraying a work “family” that either cares about and protects it’s “children (defense) or, from a plaintiff’s perspective, epitomizes the definition of “dysfunctional.”