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Human Resources: Claims stress legal firms

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(02) LIJ, p.87

Workplace stress is costing employers and the legal profession is not immune.

Increasing numbers of professional employees are making psychological stress related claims.

There is a myriad of possible factors driving this escalation, including changing government practices and policies, outsourcing, downsizing and casualisation of Victorian workplaces, unrealistic expectations in terms of workload and hours spent in the office and billable hour demands.

Other factors potentially leading to stress may include work/life conflict, an unsupportive work environment, bullying and harassment. Particularly pertinent at the moment is the negativity associated with a downturn in the economy.

A recent groundbreaking study,1 commissioned by major health insurance provider Medibank Private, shed some light on how detrimental workplace stress can be both from an economic perspective and from an employer liability point of view. The key findings from this study are as follows:

  • Stress related “presenteeism” and absenteeism are costing the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year (“presenteeism” involves the person physically being at work but not functioning at their optimal capacity due to stress related factors).
  • Stress-related “presenteeism” and absenteeism are directly costing employers $10.11 billion a year.
  • distressing as these statistics are, affirmative action to address workplace stress is a step in the right direction.

Legal firms can play a role in alleviating employee stress by coming up with a set of procedures to bring harmony back into people’s lives.

Interventions to address work stress range from organisational to individual-based approaches, with a combination being the most effective.

Firms may take a risk management approach to avoiding workplace stress by identifying potential hazards and the harms associated with these. Deliberate efforts should then be made to control, monitor or alter hazards so as not to impede performance or health and wellbeing.

Consulting with colleagues and employees to identify risks which contribute to stress in the workplace is a sound practice.

Empowering people at all levels to make decisions and identify concerns may be just what the doctor ordered.

Vic Health has conducted a great deal of research into workplace stress.2

Its report, Workplace Stress in Victoria: Developing a systems approach, offers compelling evidence that job stress is a substantial contributor to mental illness, cardio-vascular disease and other physical and mental health problems.

In response, Vic Health’s systems approaches to job stress emphasise integrating primary prevention, addressing work-related sources of job stress with secondary and tertiary interventions at the individual levels to address exposure-related responses and adverse health outcomes.

This provides the framework for dealing with workplace stress and disharmony.

Primary preventative interventions aim to prevent illness among the “healthy” workplace population. Everyday examples include changes in work pacing, and job redesign to reduce the need to work excessive hours. This approach is about preventing stress-related illness from occurring, just as one would exercise to avoid obesity. In addition, if firm numbers allow, an Occupational Health & Safety committee can be formed to manage and report on the effectiveness or otherwise of the primary interventions.

Secondary interventions centre on the need to modify an employee’s response to stressors and work closely with primary preventative interventions to reduce the stressors themselves. Secondary interventions can include stress management classes to help employees modify and control their own perceptions of stress, meditation classes, muscle relaxation classes and work/life balance seminars. These are perhaps more suitable for larger firms, however smaller firms can also take something from this approach. Instead of spending money on training seminars, smaller firms may choose to reimburse a percentage of the cost of an employee attending a health and wellbeing class.

The final intervention identified by Vic Health is termed tertiary intervention. This intervention technique is reactive and aims to reduce the effects of stress-related problems once they have occurred through a combination of treatment options including counselling, return to work policies or assistance, job sharing opportunities and other similar rehabilitation techniques. If the budget allows, some firms may offer an employee assistance program to their employees which allows them to speak with a trained and independent psychologist in relation to workplace stress and other pertinent matters.

Employees not only receive individualised assistance for personal or professional concerns, but with employee approval the consultant can provide feedback on work-related stress issues to the employer with the aim of using this information to improve the working environment.3

It is vitally important that employers promptly investigate every workplace stress claim in relation to the alleged stress condition as they have a duty of care to their employees under current occupational health and safety legislation.

That duty obliges an employer to do what is practicable to provide and maintain a safe and secure work environment where the incidents of negative workplace stressors are kept to a minimum. If an employer fails to protect the most vulnerable in their firm, they may be liable to prosecution for health and safety breaches. If this is not serious enough to warrant action, it is important to note that workplace stress will continue to wreak havoc on the companies’ financial position.

Taking affirmative action now will ensure issues are addressed and the firm can go back to what it does best, representing its clients’ (and employees’) best interests.


KIRSTEN VAN DE HOEF is the LIV’s Human Resources administrator. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit http://www.liv.asn.au.au/members/hr.

1. See http://www.medibank.com.au/Client/Documents/Pdfs/The-Cost-of-Workplace-Stress.pdf.

2. See http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/workplacestress, p1.

3. See http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/stress, p4.

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