The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

A quick perusal of topics at a major international law & mental health conference is all I need to remind me of how employment law is way behind other legal fields in connecting to mental health and psychology.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering, and a cursory review yields the dominance of topics concerning criminal justice, health care, family law, juvenile law, substance abuse, and forensics. But there is scant evidence of workplace issues, even in the many sessions related to therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and legal institutions.

Compare this to the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference I wrote about last month — another biennial, international gathering — where researchers and practitioners in fields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and occupational safety and health are positively immersed in the linkages between public policy and the psychological aspects of worker health.

Nevertheless…

I get a lot out of this conference even in the absence of many presentations directly addressing employment law & policy. As I’ve noted in previous posts, therapeutic jurisprudence has quickly become a collegial theoretical “home” for my legal interests, in that it makes eminent sense to me that the law should promote, rather than undermine, psychologically healthy outcomes. Accordingly, I find many of the ideas exchanged here to be an easy “port over” to the law of the workplace and the practice of employment law.

For example, earlier this week I listened to a simply wonderful presentation by Erna Haueter, a domestic relations lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, who explained how she uses stress reduction and relaxation techniques with her clients who are going through emotionally difficult divorce proceedings. Haueter drew upon insights from neuropsychology to explain the effects of stress on her clients, negatively impacting their ability to act in their own best interests.

Of course, her words resonated loudly with me, as I have seen countless individuals dealing with similar stress levels due to bullying and other forms of mistreatment at work. I thought to myself how great it would be if plaintiffs’ employment lawyers were taught how to use these relaxation techniques with their clients.

A challenge

My belief in the need to strengthen linkages between employment law and mental health was reaffirmed during the course of a conversation I had with an Israeli lawyer and doctoral student who is planning to do her thesis on some aspect of therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law. She expressed surprise over the paucity of work linking these two areas, suggesting that they were a natural fit together. We discussed the many relevant psychological aspects of employment law that could form the basis of a very promising thesis topic.

Those of us who understand these linkages need to do a better job of persuading fellow employment and labor law scholars to incorporate these perspectives in their work. The two dominant frames for examining employment law & policy, namely, economics (leaning right) and civil & labor rights (leaning left), yield important insights. But mental health and emotional well-being are equally important and deserve a place at the roundtable of this discussion.

***

Go here to download a copy of my 201o law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace.”

4 responses

    • Cindy, we miss you here! It has been another good conference. We’re talking about a smaller, workshop-type gathering in the US, similar to the Florida Coastal gathering in 2009, sometime next year — I’ll be in touch.

  1. “But mental health and emotional well-being are equally important and deserve a place at the roundtable of this discussion.”

    Amen to that! PEOPLE are most important.

    Thank you for another great post.

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