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

These days, the legal press is full of articles - written by lawyers, not psychologists - urging firms to take stress seriously and to look after hard-working staff. It is commendable indeed, but why this sudden display of concern?

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.

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