Employers Urged to Reduce Work Mental Health Risk

The recent Germanwings plane disaster has brought into sharp focus the issue of employee mental health, particularly in safety critical industries, a seminar in Melbourne heard.

Norton Rose Fulbright partner Barry Sheriff told a work health and safety (WHS) Legalwise law conference last week (March 27) the air crash believed to be the result of a co-pilot’s deliberate actions was a “sanguine example” of the dire consequences of workplace mental ill health.

Depression rife in law profession

Sherriff, who is the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission chair, told delegates mental health problems were rife in other industries such as the law profession. Lawyers had 2.5 times higher risk of clinical depression than other professionals, he said. One in three solicitors and one in five barristers reported depression, according a 2011 beyondblue and Beaton Consulting annual professions survey.

Sherriff said barristers either under-reported their mental illnesses for fear of reputational damage or experienced lower levels of depression compared to solicitors given they had greater control and autonomy over their jobs. “There may be issues within a law practice that contribute to that whereas barristers are more independent and in control of their destiny,” Sherriff said. “There is a low level of control over what we do and are subjected to the demands of clients, with time limits imposed by court or internally or client needs.”

Lawyers were likely to work excessive hours and not take action to alleviate stress. “Bullying was not confined to superiors – it filtered down to ‘peer-to-peer’ level as a result of ‘petty jealousies’ and ‘fighting for scraps of work’. Being pessimistic and adversarial – a necessary attribute of litigation – made lawyers more vulnerable to mental health troubles, Sherriff said. “That’s our job to look for problems,” he said. “The coping style for lawyers is to retreat, which is not the best thing. When you add it all up it’s not that surprising lawyers have an increased risk of depression.”

Sherriff advised having appropriate workplace mental health policies and processes and effective resource allocation to “prevent stressors coming to bear”. Appropriate training to understand workplace mental health and proper supervision to ensure troubles were identified early were vital. Under WHS laws, a person conducting a business or undertaking had a duty of care to ensure the work environment was without health and safety risks. He cautioned negative leadership styles, excessive workloads, lack of appropriate work systems and poor work relationships exposed workers to risks. Sherriff, who is an accredited mental health first aid officer (MHFA), encouraged employers to implement MHFA programs. He said they provided early intervention, destigmatised mental health issues and improved morale. He said psych claims were costly because they were difficult to treat.

This article was written by Annie Lawson and first appeared in Occupational Health News, click here for a free trial.

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