The finance executive sitting opposite me is speaking so rapidly and erratically that I struggle to understand what he is talking about. I wait until I sense an opportunity to intervene. I explain that in order to help him I need to understand what has happened at work and that he has to slow down. Eight days earlier, his life had been upended. Without warning, he was suspended from work while an investigation was conducted into misconduct allegations against him. He hasn’t slept since then.
Years later, I meet with a high-profile man for the first time and his enormous distress is impossible to hide. He is barely able to communicate or answer my questions. He is suffering the results of a shock-and-awe legal strategy that has been skilfully deployed against him. He is living under siege from the media and is reluctant to be seen in public.
In the ensuing months and despite many attempted interventions to assist, his health collapses in front of my eyes.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened but at some point in my career, I realised that most people who came to see me for legal advice about problems they were dealing with at work were suffering some degree of trauma. Or anxiety. Or depression. Sometimes worse.
My realisation has had a profound effect on the way I practise law.
The people who seek my advice, with few exceptions, are distressed because their work life is unravelling – they are being forced out of a job, sexually harassed, bullied, accused of bullying or harassment, under investigation or otherwise mistreated. A redundancy process, such as that under way at the ABC, can also trigger strong reactions from staff.
By regularly sitting down with people whose working lives have started to fracture, I have inadvertently become a student of human nature. I have discerned familiar patterns. Human beings are wildly variable but also surprisingly similar in how they react to employment problems.
In many ways, the collapse of a working relationship resembles a divorce with anger, distress, denial and sorrow vying for supremacy.
The stereotype of the husband who slowly and methodically withdraws all love and affection from his wife but doesn’t tell her it’s over so as not to hurt her feelings has its analogy in many workplaces. The unifying theme is this; we are reluctant to confront difficult situations and to have uncomfortable conversations. So we send out baffling, hurtful signals instead.
An employee may sense something is wrong when their peers and supervisors start to distance themselves from him. No longer invited to meetings, passed over for conference invitations, for promotion or a pay rise. The company is sending a message but will rely on plausible deniability if confronted. It hopes for a resignation so “feelings aren’t hurt”. Employees routinely soldier on, trying to rationalise what is going on around them. Trying to hang on – until something snaps them into action. It’s at this point that I may first meet with them.
We love our work. We invest in our work. We over-work. We take pride in our work. We rely on our work. We exist to work and vice versa.
There is an important point of distinction between our work and domestic lives: we spend more waking hours at work.
Undertaking a law degree involves learning about the law and legal reasoning. When I studied law, there was no module on “Distressed People: how to deal with them”. Early on in my career, I was reluctant to veer outside the comfort zone of giving legal advice. I did not discuss my clients’ mental health unless they initiated the discussion.
That reluctance is long gone.
I now routinely dispense advice about the need to protect and promote mental health during a legal dispute. When I explain to my clients that it is normal to experience trauma and distress in these situations, the response is usually relief. Occasionally, gratitude – particularly from a long-suffering spouse. While I am considering the best legal strategy to adopt for each case, I ask that each client do some homework to ensure that while the dispute continues, they develop a plan to protect mental health. In extreme cases, I make it a prerequisite.
I have no medical or health qualifications, yet no qualms about giving advice to preserve and protect mental health. Why? Because it helps. It helps both the people I represent and the colleagues I work alongside. And lastly, it helps me.
5 WAYS TO PROMOTE BETTER MENTAL HEALTH AT WORK:
1. Encourage discussion of mental health problems and ways to promote better mental health in the workplace;
2. Encourage staff to have a proactive plan to manage their mental health;
3. Train leaders to have frank and open discussion of mental health with their teams;
4. Train leaders about how best to handle uncomfortable discussions with staff;
5. Ensure the firm has a good employee assistance program.
Josh Bornstein heads the Employment Law team at Maurice Blackburn, and is also a director of the firm, which employs 900 people. He writes and presents regularly on the world of work.
Image Credit: BRW Website
This article originally appeared on BRW Website