Mental Health, Addiction, and Workers’ Comp

Economic distress and social isolation are increasing the risk that North Carolina employees may experience mental health issues and substance use disorders. Even under normal conditions, employees suffering a work-related injury or disease may develop opioid addictions or mental conditions such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic is poised to make matters even worse.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession has led to a nationwide spike in the number of cases of mental illness, substance use disorders, and overdoses. As a result, NSC is recommending that employers increase focus on employee mental health, especially as workers gradually return to work. 

Employers often are best positioned to identify early signs and symptoms of impairment and substance abuse. Close monitoring may pay off financially, too. Addiction and mental health disorders in workers may cause employers to suffer financial loss:

  • Workers with mental illness or addiction may be less productive at work.
  • Workers who develop addictions may be more likely to provide pretextual reasons not to return to work, or to malinger.
  • Mental illness and addiction may be deemed to be causally related to compensable workers’ compensation claims in some instances.
  • Workers with severe mental illness may pose a threat to the safety of other workers.
  • Workers under the influence of certain substances may pose a threat to their own safety or coworkers’ safety, increasing the risk of injury.

As for the latter factor listed above, you may be thinking that employers can simply use the worker’s intoxication as an absolute defense to a workers’ comp claim. After all, in theory, North Carolina employers have a statutory defense under NC Gen Stat § 97-12 when a worker’s death or injury was proximately caused by intoxication, if the employer did not supply the intoxicant. Employers also have a “complete” defense when the employee was under the influence of a controlled substance unless it was prescribed by a medical professional. These defenses appear solid and sometimes do prevail, but they are not foolproof. As a practical matter, it is often difficult to prove intoxication, causation related to that intoxication, and whether the worker was “under the influence.”

For North Carolina employers, prevention is key. Here are some ways to address employees’ mental health problems before they become the employer’s problem:

  1. Clarify workplace alcohol and drug policy
  2. Encourage workers to report observations of unusual behavior
  3. Review these free tools and guidance to address mental health concerns during reopening. These resources are published by an NSC task force called SAFER (Safe Actions for Employee Return).
  4. With the help of an employment attorney, consider drug and alcohol testing following a work injury.

As North Carolina reopens, the team at Anders Newton wishes all employers a safe and healthy transition. Contact us any time if you have questions about workers’ compensation claims involving mental health conditions or substance abuse. We are here to help.

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