The low-hanging fruit

The work health and safety Code of Practice, ‘Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work’ (Code) has been in place since 1 April 2023 in Queensland.

The Code provides guidance to employers on providing a system of work that is safe for the psychological health of employees. But what does this mean in practice for leaders of law firms?

This article will discuss the common psychosocial hazards in law firms and some simple steps that can be taken to address them.


By now, employers should be aware that the Code is in effect. As a brief refresher, the Code is intended to be a practical guide for achieving the standard of health and safety required under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act). It provides a risk management process for managing psychosocial hazards and gives examples of control measures for common psychosocial hazards.

Psychosocial hazards are hazards that arise from, or relate to, the design or management of work, a work environment, plant at a workplace, or workplace interactions and behaviours. These hazards may cause psychological harm, whether or not they also cause physical harm.1 Common psychosocial hazards include high and low job demands, poor support, low reward and recognition, and exposure to traumatic materials.


The Code is an approved Code of Practice under the WHS Act. This means that in Queensland, a person conducting a business or undertaking (e.g. law firms) must comply with the Code or manage hazards and risks in a way that provides an equivalent or higher standard of work health and safety.2

While the Code does provide some examples of control measures, such as designing work to ensure manageable workloads, it is difficult to know what measures are appropriate for the unique challenges of legal practice.

Psychosocial hazards in law firms

Different members of a law firm will be affected by different psychosocial hazards. Lawyers at the start of their career will not face the same challenges as people who have been in the industry for a long time.

For junior members of a firm, such as graduates and junior lawyers, they have very little control over the amount of work that they receive. They also face a steep learning curve, needing to come to grips with new and complicated areas of law very quickly. Further, they need to adjust to life as a practitioner, including meeting billable hours targets and having less free time as a full-time worker.

Lawyers at the associate and senior associate level face the pressure of producing a substantial amount of the work for the firm. These lawyers face high demands from partners and clients, producing high-quality work in a short period of time. At this level, peer competition can also create stress.  


For partners and principals, there are also unique challenges. As the leaders of a firm, they face the financial pressures of running the business. They often have the most contact with clients and deal with their demands and expectations. Further, there is no one above them to look after their health or to check in on their needs.

A hazard that is common for all lawyers is high work and time demands. In a global study conducted by the International Bar Association, stressful and time-intensive work were the reasons most cited by lawyers for why their job had a negative effect on their wellbeing.3

Another common psychosocial hazard is vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma refers to the negative mental health effects that result from engaging with trauma survivors and their trauma material. This is common in criminal and family law firms where lawyers may be working with vulnerable clients.

The low-hanging fruit – simple steps to take

While it is easy to acknowledge that there are psychosocial hazards inherent in legal practice, these need to be controlled in accordance with the Code.  So, what are the practical steps leaders can take? The good news is that there are some ‘low-hanging fruit’ measures that can be easily implemented.

The first simple but important thing leaders can do is check in on their employees and talk to them about mental health. You can schedule catchup sessions with employees to ask them about their mental health and whether they have any concerns. Studies show that when employees see their employers care about their wellbeing, they feel more engaged with their work and are less likely to suffer from burn out.4


Giving employees some control over work location and hours of work is also an important step leaders can take. With intense work demands being a common psychosocial hazard, giving lawyers some control over their caseload and an ability to work flexibility can address this.

Helping employees focus on purpose can also improve wellbeing. This could be achieved through the work they are doing, by engaging in pro bono work or by having the opportunity to support causes they connect with.

Leaders also need to learn how to identify signs of psychological distress and to lead an R U Okay conversation.

For firms that deal with traumatic materials, an important control measure includes file flagging and locking control of file access. A file lock system ensures only those who need to access the file are permitted to do so. A file flagging system marks files and documents containing materials that could be upsetting to the reader, warning them prior to opening the file.

Leaders of the firm often have the most contact with clients and have the most influence on managing expectations. Where possible, clients should be given realistic timeframes once an objective assessment is made as to the issues at hand.

Changing how we think about mental health


It is important for leaders to actively engage with the topic of mental health. As an industry we should strive for a culture where lawyers can discuss their mental health without fearing for their career.  

So, what is the takeaway?

Law firms should be aware of their work health and safety obligations regarding psychosocial hazards and the Code. There are small steps that leaders can take to protect the mental health of their employees.

This article was written by Belinda Winter, a Partner at Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers and Chair of the QLS Wellbeing Working Group and law clerk William Head.

1 Work Health and Safety Regulation (Qld) s 55A.
2 WHS Act s 26A.
3 International Bar Association, Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study (Report, October 2021).
4 Timothy Bartram et al, ‘Thriving in the face of burnout? The effects of wellbeing-oriented HRM on the relationship between workload, burnout, thriving and performance’ (2023) 45(5) Employee Relations: The International Journal 1234.

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