EMPLOYEES are feeling the bite of the economic crisis through a heightened sense of anxiety as more and more jobs dangle by a thin thread.
It has been discovered that 20 per cent of employees are suffering from anxiety or depression.
Greg Robertson, a general counsel from Harmers Workplace Lawyers, advises the economic climate could be a legal nightmare for employers if proper care lacks. According to Robertson, employers are now facing the prospect of increased cases claiming psychological damage and mental illness such as depression.
“While some employment sectors naturally have a higher number of cases of stress and depression, such as emergency services operators who are often placed in very traumatic situations, we are seeing a significant increase in mental illness cases amongst employees in many other sectors as the economic situation deteriorates and redundancies and rumours of redundancies take hold,” says Robertson.
The run-on effects of such anxiety would implicate employers and have a devastating effect on the business both financially and within the culture of the company.
“This high-anxiety situation may have serious legal and productivity related ramifications for businesses,” says Robertson.
“From a legal perspective, employers who ignore the situation open themselves to significant legal risk, for example, for breach of anti discrimination and occupational health and safety laws, for breach of contract claims, for action based on the employer’s negligence, or even a combination of all these kinds of action.’
But not all hope is lost for employers. Robertson advises that simple measures can be implemented to ensure workers are kept relaxed.
“There are several steps employers can take to help prevent the rise in workplace mental illness and to protect from litigation,” he says.
“One key measure, approved by the courts, is having an employee assistance program in place — somewhere employees can go to get some advice and counselling as a result of what is happening at work or at home.”
While the preventative initiatives have the potential to lessen the risk of mental illness in the workplace, employers need to be aware of their obligations in relation to employees who may be struggling with a mental health problem.
The duty to ensure such health requires employers to take possible steps to prevent the development or aggravation of mental illness due to work-related pressures. Failure to take reasonable care of employees can give rise to legal action based on negligence of the employer which in turn can lead to significant fines.
“Furthermore, it is also becoming more widely accepted that an employment contract contains an implied term that obliges the employer not to undermine the trust and confidence that the employee places in the employment relationship,” says Robertson.
“If an employer is found to have breached its contractual duty of care, or the term of trust and confidence, the employer may be liable in damages to the employee, for economic loss and the injury suffered as a result of the breach.”
Practical advice for business on how to avoid mental illness
There are a number of prevention tactics which include:
• Have a clear anti-bullying policy to combat interpersonal conflict in the workplace.
• Changing the organisational structure of the workplace by conducting an organisational risk assessment.
• Changing the content or type of work employees are expected to carry out.
• Encourage an improved level of physical fitness in the workplace e.g. gym membership incentives or providing access to healthy snack food.
• Taking measures to improve employees’ work management skills.
Warning signs to look out for
• Increasing numbers of unplanned absences.
• Increased irritability or conflict in the workplace.
• Indecisiveness of staff.
• Loss of sense of humour.
• Changes to work patterns (such as staying late, or taking work home).
• Increase in customer complaints.
• Poor quality of work.
• Greater use or abuse of drugs and/or alcohol.
• Increased use of staff support services.
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