If you’ve ever had a job you hate, supervisors or coworkers that love making your life hell, or if you’ve ever spent Saturday AND Sunday thinking about how bad you didn’t want to go back to work on Monday because of stress and anxiety, then you’ll want to read this entire article.
Before I go on I just want to tell you why I’m even writing about this. I had a reader contact me recently about this issue and she had some concerns about losing work due to severe anxiety.
Over her short working career she’s lost as many as 15 jobs, has been denied disability benefits multiple times and feels like there isn’t anyone advocating for the little guy.
Then it dawned on me that if she has this problem, then it has to be that there are others with the same problem.
I mean, it’s not like I’ve never sat in my cubicle Monday morning watching Microsoft windows load and had a quick day dream about walking out of the office never to be seen again, at least not by those guys anyway.
So, I’m going to tell you what your options are for filing disability because of stress and or anxiety, what to expect, pros and cons, and some other morsels of information.
To kick this off I think we should start by talking a little bit about what qualifies you for disability. And although there are many different kinds of disability coverage, I will cover only a few in this article, since the basics are the same across the board.
Now, since I live in California, I’ll be using my home state as a template, so let me quote part of the California Unemployment Insurance Code that defines what a disability is.
Section 2626 of the California UI code says, in a nutshell, that “Disability is defined as ANY mental or physical illness or injury which prevents you from performing your regular or customary work.”
Moreover, the US National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety defines job stress as, “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”
So under these two definitions stress and anxiety are acknowledged as work related issues, and as such they count as “illnesses” that could qualify someone for disability benefits.
How much they count as a basis for not working is a more complex issue. You have to take into account what state you live in, your work history, medical history, and so on.
In other words, just because you think your job is making your anxiety worse, don’t think for a second that you’ll be watching Jerry Springer anytime soon.
The reality is that in most cases it is hard to get disability benefits because of stress or anxiety. The powers that be have no problem with you breaking some bones and calling out for awhile, but when you try to pull the whole, “I’m too anxious to work thing,” you’ll find more closed doors than welcome mats for sure.
Actually, let me explore this idea with you for a second. I think the reason it’s so hard to get disability for stress, anxiety, depression or any other psych disorder, boils down to two things, and those are the potential for abuse and the puritan work ethic that underpins our entire culture.
With respect to the former, I think that stress and anxiety are conveniently seen as just part of life, so in most cases they want you to just “get over it.” And “they” want it this way not always on moral grounds, but also for practical reasons.
Let’s be honest, a lot of people cheat the system.
The more unscrupulous among us go to a doctor, open up the tear faucet, and get put on disability, many times at taxpayer expense. So, to some degree, they drop the hammer on people looking to get off work due to stress and anxiety because of the semi-subjective nature of emotions like anxiety, the degree to which it can truly immobilize you, and the difficulty of gauging all that.
The bottom-line is that it’s just kinda of hard to tell if someone is faking it, so the hurdles put up to stop you can get tall and numerous. Although I concede that there are people that fake back injuries too, but I digress.
The other thing is that our whole system in America is based on the Puritan work ethic. This ethic is the one that values hard work to an almost lunatic degree. It’s the belief that work is more than work, it is in fact, your moral duty.
This is why America is obsessed with work to the point that when strangers meet they’ll almost always ask, so what do you do? As in, what is your contribution? Dare I say, what is your worth?
This is also why we work, work, and work in America. It’s in the blood. With a culture obsessed with work, imagine for a second what happens when you stop working, or in this case try to stop working?
The music stops and you’re left without a chair for sure.
Ultimately, it’s hard to get disability because of the potential for cheaters to cheat and because it’s generally frowned upon in our culture to not work. The mission isn’t impossible though, so let’s take a look at your options.
Qualifying for benefits
In order to qualify for any type of disability benefits you’ll have to do more than have difficulty doing your job because of stress or anxiety. Here are a few of the basics.
- You must be unable to do your regular work for a certain amount of consecutive days. In California it is 8 straight days.
- You must provide written proof by a medical doctor (which includes psychiatrists), or other health care professional like a psychologist, for example, that you are not fit to work.
- Allow access to your medical records.
- Must be undergoing treatment for anxiety, stress, depression or whatever you’re claiming. This includes things like taking medication and undergoing therapy.
- There may be wage and employment requirements.
- You have to submit a disability claim application. This stuff isn’t automatic!
- You’ll have to be open to a medical evaluation by the entity you’re trying to get benefits from.
- You may be subject to an investigation, which may involve the interviewing of family, friends, and co-workers.
Types of Coverage
Not all disability coverage’s are created equal. This is because the type of coverage you have will dictate how much time off you get, how much money you are paid and other particulars of that nature.
State plans - The majority of workers fall under this plan in California. This coverage is paid by deductions from your paycheck. Not sure if you pay into this? Take a look at your pay stub.
In California it would say CASDI, which stands for California State Disability Insurance. Obviously this will vary from state to state, but most working Americans are eligible for this type of coverage.
Voluntary plans – This is a private plan that employers and employee groups can use with approval through your state’s disability office. You can inquire about this coverage through your employer.
Elective coverage – Employers and self-employed people can elect coverage by directly contacting their state disability office.
Short term disability – In this case your employers or your own policy will dictate your coverage. This coverage, like all others, pays a portion of your salary if you become disabled.
You can get it through private insurance companies like Metlife or Aflac by way of your employer. See your human resources department at work for more information. You can also get it through the social security office as well.
FMLA – The Family & Medical Leave Act allows eligible workers to take off up to 12 weeks in any one 12 month period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a family member, or because of a health issue.
This coverage doesn’t all have to be used all at once either, it can be broken up over time and can even be used to allow for part time work on a temporary basis.
Workers Comp – This is insurance that your employer pays for in the event that you are injured on the job. Workers comp will pay for medical bills, disability payments and retraining benefits.
In most cases it will be difficult to obtain workers comp benefits for stress or anxiety. The state of California for example is notorious for investigating these types of claims vigorously and denying them with just as much gusto.
They could argue with you about whether or not it is your job that is making you panic and so on. Is it the kids? Your spouse?
They will dig, believe me. Actually, in the state of Virginia they laugh at stress or anxiety claims. But in Michigan they do pay on such claims, so you’ve go to do your homework.
SSI – Supplemental Security Income disability is a federal program that can be used to pay disability benefits due to stress or anxiety. This program is perhaps one of the most hoop intensive programs.
From what I understand, when it comes to workers comp, or SSI, it isn’t unusual for people to acquire the services of an attorney because things can get nasty. In fact, the denial rate for SSI is super high. You may have to try multiple times, and even end up in court to get your benefits.
The appeals process is something you have to be aware of because of the high rate of denial for “stress claims.” In most cases, from the date of denial, you’ll be given a set amount of days to submit an appeal.
This should have your case reopened for reexamination.
The bottom-line here is: know your rights! Just because someone says no the first time means nothing.
Maybe you got a grumpy examiner the first time around, it happens. Also remember that if you win your appeal you could be entitled to retroactive payments.
The up side to getting disability payments for stress or anxiety is huge. This will give you the time to regroup and recharge your batteries. It will also give you time to get the help that you need.
After all, being on disability is not about watching day time t.v. or shuffling around WalMart when everyone else is at work. It is about making a plan to get better and trying to fulfill that plan to the best of your ability.
Mental stress is a real problem that needs to be addressed. By addressing this problem you can avoid getting sick on a physical level, and avoid all the problems that come with that, like gigantic medical bills. So the break down of perks looks like this if you can make it across all the red tape.
- More time to let your mind and body recover from the effects of stress.
- More time to seek help and make a plan of action to maintain your long term health.
- More time to reevaluate your situation, like your job, unhealthy habits, relationship problems, and lots more.
Working day in and day out can be a grind, a big metallic grinder with shiny blades, in fact. Getting away from such a thing temporarily is not a bad thing.
Here it is, the bad part. You didn’t think that this would be all easy street right? Well, for starters, if you file for disability it is possible that your life will become an open book.
So you have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that. I mean, if they’re interviewing co-workers about this, it’ll be more than just a cat coming out of a bag… it’ll be more like a tiger. Office gossip, trash talkers, you name it, they will all come out of the woodwork.
You’ll turn into topic numero uno, and possibly be labeled as the office “crazy person.”
Then there is the stigma put on you by management. After months or even years of loyal service, you could become the object of anger or even neglect. Backlash is a real possibility.
And lastly, although in many instances it is illegal, you could lose your job. I’ve personally encountered several people who went on disability only to come back to work to be told that there is a “lack of work,” and voila, no more j.o.b.
Even women that go on maternity leave have to face this sometimes, imagine what they will do to someone who is “just” stressed out. So if you go on disability you can expect:
- Office rumors and gossip about you
- Managerial backlash
- Social stigmatization
This isn’t to discourage you, it is just to give you a realistic picture of what it could be like once you get on disability. You have to know that the going won’t always be easy.
When stress and anxiety jump up and bite you, you don’t always have to fold your tent up and go home. You do have a few options that you can explore to avoid disability altogether.
EAP – This stands for Employee Assistance Program, which are programs designed to help employees with personal problems like drug abuse, emotional distress, major life events, financial troubles and work relationships.
This type of program can be linked to your health care plan and may provide counseling services as well. Unfortunately, EAP’s are normally only found at large companies, but if you work at a big company don’t ignore this resource. Talk to someone in your human resources department for more information.
Vacation & Sick Leave – Got some time off coming? Instead of the typical vacation you could try to design a getaway or even a home based self-help program to get back to basics for a few weeks, or if you haven’t already, you can visit your doctor about starting medication and explore other treatment options, all in private.
The truth is that typical vacations can be stressful, and may not even be necessary, considering that maybe all you need is a few days to collect your thoughts and indulge in some R&R. You could also use some of this time with short notice if your employer allows it.
You’d be surprised what taking Thursday, Friday and the weekend off can do to your spirits, good things indeed. I also know that not all of us are lucky enough to have paid time off, but if you have it then use it, and use it wisely.
It is both wrong and unfair that those of us that suffer from anxiety aren’t given more compassion and patience in the workplace. But in our workaholic culture there is little compassion or patience for those that succumb to the pressures of work.
You may even be called lazy, worthless, and so on if you do, but this is all nonsense. And although this is the state of things, remember that you have every right to use your benefits if the situation calls for it.
With that being said, the system isn’t geared against you. As I’ve outlined above, there are many different ways to escape the pressures of work for awhile if that’s what you need to calm down a little.
It’s true that depending on the coverage you’re trying to use things can get challenging, but it’s not impossible. Also, don’t forget that in some cases you can acquire the services of an attorney and not go it alone, but if you go this route keep the cost in mind.
There is no way that I can make this an exhaustive enough article to even begin to do it justice. My goal was to give you a cursory overview of what disability is, and how it works. I want to leave you with one last tip.
When it comes to ANY claim, but especially disability claims, document EVERYTHING. Medical cost, lost wages, or whatever you can think of related to your claim, save it and make copies.
Now, I know some of you have experience with this. So, join me in helping the AG community with this issue by commenting below.
Side-note: I couldn’t list all the offices for all 50 states, but you can Google “Your state disability” and find listings that way.