Stress Leave – More serious than you think

One of the most common workplace issue in Australia is work-related stress. As an employer, how should you be handling this?

There are many symptoms to ‘stressed’ employees. Learn to pick them up quickly:

For example, you might find that a worker is becoming more prone to incidents and injuries, or that their tasks are not being fulfilled to the required standard. Another is irritability and an unwillingness to interact with colleagues. However, it can often be hard to identify and address stress leave.

Why it’s serious

Increasingly, employees are claiming workers’ compensation for stress-related illnesses or injuries. What does this exactly imply about their employer? Does it indicate poor performance management or a lack of care towards employees? Often these claims are tagged with emotive terms such as “workplace bullying” or “harassment”.

The former Labor Government introduced bullying legislation which enables the FWC to issue orders preventing bullying. Some employees – although, not many – have made use of those laws to successfully get orders to prevent bullying by other employees or their management. However, the bullying has to be ongoing behaviour, not a one-off incident. It also excludes reasonable management action in performance managing employees.

Often it can be much harder to fight a workers’ compensation claim than sick leave because the employer has to depend on a third party (the insurer) to take action damage on the employer’s behalf. Not only does this take time, but even worse it may not happen at all and employees end up picking up the bill via increased premiums.

We suspect many of the claims are taken by employees who just can’t or won’t tolerate the thought of being “done-over” by their employer (or other employees). Some of these we suspect may be so-called narcissists (see more about narcissists here).

What Employers Must Do

It is the employer’s responsibility to identify the causes of workplace stress. Find the root of the problem or continue to bear the expense.

One issue with ‘stress’ leave is that it can often be difficult to prove whether the symptoms are genuine – requesting independent medical advice is a way of helping to reduce this doubt. But note that stress is not an actual medical condition – often a workers’ compensation medical certificate will use terms such as anxiety or depression to pass through the workers’ compensation system. Here is what to do if you think your employees are abusing paid leave.

Have a proper process/system ready.

Whatever the case of complaint, it is crucial to have a proper investigative process in place. This will allow employers to redress incorrect management actions, and even protect the employer against bogus workplace bullying claims that could otherwise result in anti-bullying orders from the Fair Work Commission.

Whichever route you decide to take, it is essential to make sure that the same procedure is used for all members of staff.

A way to ensure this happens is to outline the steps that need to be taken for work-related stress issues in the staff handbook and other widely-publicised locations, as this provides a point of reference to everyone within the organisation.

Taking immediate action to ensure your workers’ compensation insurer takes appropriate steps in relation to stress claims is also important. Outside of the workers’ compensation system, full-time employees are entitled to receive ten days’ paid personal leave per year (part-time workers will receive a pro-rata allowance) upon meeting defined criteria.

Employers need to make sure that if a worker is claiming leave for a stress-related illness that the employer observes the National Employment Standards to avoid being faced with legal claims for breaching the NES requirements.

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