Put the stress on leadership
An employee who sued his firm after a breakdown has highlighted the nee d for effective management. Andrea Kennedy reports
Wednesday 18 January 1995
Because of a man called John Walker. Simply put, Mr Walker's employer increased his workload so significantly that the resulting stress led him to suffer two nervous breakdowns. He sued his employer for damages for failing to provide him with a safe system of work, and won.
But stress is not really about working hard, or even being overworked. If it were, most of the lawyers in the City would be gibbering wrecks. Hard work and pressure are part and parcel of any busy professional's day, and many actually work better under pressure.
Stress is different. Stress in the workplace is born of frustration and the loss of control that the employee has over his ability to do his job. Take Mr Walker's case. It was not his increased workload in itself that caused his eventual breakdown; it was the fact that the increase was not accompanied by any corresponding increase in help or guidance from his employer, leaving Mr Walker to fend for himself.
The more senior partners and management of law firms usually do not suffer from stress caused by work. After all, they are in charge, and if things are not going their way, they have the authority to put them right. It is far more likely to be middle management, secretaries and young lawyers who have the sleepless nights, the headaches and the panic attacks. They are the casualties of the firm that cannot properly manage its staff. Stress management begins with man management.
Let us look at law firm A. In the Eighties it enjoyed a period of great expansion. Productivity and profits were high, pay rises and perks generous. Everyone felt part of the team. As the firm grew, however, communications began to break down. Multiple layers of administration formed, alienating the partners from the staff.
When the recession hit, panic set in. The partnerships that were virtually guaranteed after six years' service were no longer there for the taking. Consequently, the lawyers began jockeying for power, and policies and planning were sacrificed at the altar of personalities, allowing the bullies to rise to the top.
Budgets for support services were cut dramatically and redundancies followed. Co-operation in the workplace was replaced by competition. The once-healthy working environment became contaminated by suspicion and anxiety. Absenteeism was high. Loyalty was still expected from staff, but was not reciprocated. Staff felt that they had no outlet for expressing grievances, or that complaints would be used against them.
This is a bleak and perhaps exaggerated scene. Nevertheless, many firms do suffer from some elements of this corrosive environment, and must put systems in place quickly to solve the problems before they get worse.
The quickest, most effective step forward is for firms to adopt or improve good systems of communication. Staff need to feel a part of the business, and that they have a significant role to play. They need to know what the business is all about and whereit is going, and their views should be consulted. This leads to a stronger sense of teamwork and increased loyalty towards the firm.
Employees need to know what is expected of them. There are a lot of people in organisations, including law firms, who are told just to "get on with the job" without being given a job description. This is usually because the employers themselves do not know what they want. No clear goals are set against which to measure progress, nor are regular appraisals given. In the end the employee flails around, desperately attempting to please. But, of course, no one is pleased. It is an ideal breeding ground for inefficiency, resentment and stress.
Many management problems in law firms can be attributed to the lack of effective leadership. As the Chinese say: "The fish rots from the head."
If a law firm is structured, as many are, with a senior partner, a managing partner and a managing board, then these people must set up clear lines of reporting, and grievance procedures, within the organisation. They must be clearly communicated to the staff and strictly followed. Wherever possible, the employee should not report to a number of people, all with different agendas. Nothing but frustration will be achieved. Furthermore, if systems for working and reporting are established, they mus t not be allowed to be circumvented or ignored by bullies who get things done by shouting and pulling rank.
In some firms, communication and man management skills, as with lunch, are considered to be for wimps. But there is a real risk that employers who continue to disregard their workforces will be hit in the wallet.
There is a saying in the training community: "Don't try to teach pigs to sing. It's a waste of time and it annoys the pigs." Until now, this could have been applied to teaching lawyers to be good managers. Maybe at last, however, thanks to Mr Walker, thepigs might at least learn to hum a few notes.
In the meantime, if you are unlucky enough to be employed by an organisation like law firm A, take my advice: cancel your therapy and hand in your notice.
The writer is director of Barnards Inn Chambers.
Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown
- 1 Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
- 2 Christians: The world's most persecuted people
- 3 The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
- 4 Richard Dawkins says 'date rape is bad, stranger rape is worse' on Twitter
- 5 Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
The secret report that helps Israel hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
A new Russian revolution: The cracks are starting to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
- < Previous
- Next >
iJobs Money & Business
£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...
£25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Orgtel are seeking Graduate Trainee Re...
£45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: ** HR Business Partner - Senior H...
£28000 - £32000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: PA / Team Secretary - Mat...
Day In a Page
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village
A one-bedroom, luxury apartment with private gym and concierge service in Moorgate
A four-bedroom house in Hermitage Gardens with three reception rooms and landscaped gardens
A seven-bedroom Grade II-listed property with a separate self-contained apartment
A five-bedroom Victorian house with three reception rooms and galleried landing, £695,000
A six-bedroom farmhouse with five acres of land in a former cloth-making village
A secluded seven-bedroom detached house with large private garden, £490,000
A three-bedroom cottage overlooking Sarratt village green with open fires and solid oak floors
A three-bedroom maisonette flat in a Grade I-listed, Georgian townhouse in a sought-after location
A one-bedroom apartment located within a private gated development, north of Turnham Green
Look forward to a brighter future at two-bedroom Sunny Cottages, ideal for Londoners looking to downsize
A three-bedroom red-brick cottage with outbuildings and pretty gardens, £200,000
This three-bedroom flat within a former textile factory spans the corner of the fourth floor and has a balcony
A charming four-bedroom Oxfordshire cottage with oak floors and chunky-beamed ceilings, £465,000
A beautiful one-bed flat in a sought-after portered block, with access to Norland Square communal gardens
A one-bedroom flat within a Sixties school conversion with high-spec design and open-plan kitchen, close to Lambeth North Tube, £435,000
A 17th century four-bedroom house, with open fireplaces, cellar and pool, £600,000