The Power of the Matrix

The Power of the Matrix

The legalities of stress: Confronting costly hidden employee stressors

By Robert Heston

A honeycomb is a natural wonder, and so is a company that is structured to serve not only its customers, but also its employees.

Executives and unit managers need the wisdom and energy of bees as they design corporate structures. A honeycomb is a matrix, and without that intricate configuration there would be no honey. The little insects work feverishly to build the weave of cells, but it’s inside these tiny wax chambers that they secrete and store honey—along with baby bees and the pollen that is part of a bee’s diet.

No infrastructure, no honeycomb; no honeycomb, no honey. It’s that simple—and complex.

Infrastructure is strength, and companies without an interlinking matrix design are empty shells. Effective organizational planners recognize this, especially when it comes to customers and financial management. The best also understand the importance of infrastructure when it comes to employee needs and services.

Stinging issue

In this series of articles we’ve been exploring the stinging issue (pun intended) of how personal legal issues can affect employees and their job performance. We’ve seen that when a worker is yanked into court on a case that seems to have nothing to do with his or her employer that it actually has a lot to do with the employee’s company. Increased conflict, absenteeism, presenteeism (the employee is physically present on the job, but mentally and emotionally still in the lawyer’s office or courtroom), and even stress-induced physical illness all can impact the worker and stifle productivity.

Legal benefit plans can ease stress on employees snared in legal disputes, but those plans must have a comprehensive infrastructure. Good legal plans contain a matrix of services for workers involved in the court system. Legal plans without infrastructure are empty shells.

An effective legal plan assigns a counselor to follow up with the employee-member on a regular basis and at critical points in the legal process. These regular check-ins can help ascertain the dynamic between the attorney and the client and determine whether the goal of the legal plan—to reduce employee stress and increase productivity—is actually being met.

Legal plans with this type of rich infrastructure can uncover potential problems between the employee-member and his or her attorney. Address and remedy the situation with more resources if needed, provide additional information, and, in limited circumstances, arrange for either a new or additional lawyer.

The counselor provided by a well-structured legal plan can walk with the employee through every stressful step, explaining pitfalls and legal system roadblocks. The counselor also can help the employee work better and more efficiently with the attorney and keep wasted work time to a minimum. Employee-members under this type of legal plan have two advocates: their attorney and their counselor. A legal plan with such comprehensive infrastructure helps the employee to navigate the treacherous waters of litigation, at no extra cost.

Jack and Jill get sued

A slight twist on the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme provides clarity. The story tells us that Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack, of course, fell down, broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

Quite possibly, Jack’s negligence caused Jill to trip. But let’s complicate it. What if Jack and Jill have trespassed on private property to get the water? When they tumble down the hill, they roll right under the owner’s prize cow, whose womb is ripe with a calf ready to be born. Jack and Jill knock down the cow, causing the loss of the calf. The farmer sues.

Jack works for a company with a poorly structured benefit plan. Jill’s employer has sought the best for its workers, including a legal benefits plan with a well-designed infrastructure. Jill’s legal plan provider constantly monitors her case. When complexities arise, as they inevitably do, she has a support team within the legal plan’s infrastructure, ready to help. Jack’s plan offers the barest of services, and he often feels he must hack out his own path through the jungle of litigation before him. Even just finding a lawyer seems an overwhelming task.

Jack’s supervisor notes he is becoming increasingly moody. On some days he withdraws into a shell and seems incapable of interacting with others or performing his job. On other days Jack is angry, and it erupts in every situation. The supervisor tries to get Jack to talk about what’s troubling him, but he doesn’t have the skills to get Jack to open up. Inside his own mind, Jack is grappling with the latest report from his lawyer or a new set of demands from the court. Even though he has a legal benefit plan that has provided minimal support, Jack is still enmeshed in the complexities of litigation, and he doesn’t know where to go to get help with the subtleties.

Jill’s HR and benefits managers recognize that the devil—and the dangers—are in the details. They realized that a legal benefits plan with rich infrastructure would anticipate the stress-inducing subtleties connected with litigation and would provide services to help the employee deal with them. Jill’s attorney, like Jack’s, is hard to reach. If a troubling issue arises, however, she has a plan counselor who can get her information and assistance quickly. Jill is able to relax at work, knowing there is a many-faceted infrastructure of benefit services available to her.

Infrastructure and stress reduction

Certain legal plans offer more benefits and services that can help reduce employee stress. If an HR or benefits manager analyzes various legal plans, he or she will find significant differences in services available to employee-members. While most cover routine legal problems in some manner, certain legal plans will expand benefits—either at no cost or at an upsell packaged cost—to peripheral litigation issues not requiring an attorney.

Take the case of an imaginary employee we’ll call “Sam.” Last Christmas Sam wanted to give everyone in his family special gifts. But there was a big list of gift recipients and Sam maxed out all three of his credit cards. Then came grim January and February. Bills started piling up like snow on a Colorado peak. Sam struggled to make minimum payments.

March set Sam’s phone ringing. Collection agencies called Sam at home and work, demanding payment. Sam was harried and worried. He finally got enough courage to talk to his boss, who referred Sam to the company’s benefits office. There Sam discovered he was covered by a legal plan with expanded benefits that actually assisted Sam in managing and reducing debt, and even helped him establish and build up a savings account, despite his financial woes.

Not only was Sam’s debt reduced, but so was his stress at home and at work. Sam’s job performance reflected his newfound peace of mind.

Sam’s company benefitted from the more extensive legal plan as well. Costs to the employer go down as wage garnishments and attendant HR costs decrease. Employers save money in productivity hours when employees no longer have to take creditor calls at work and spend valuable time arguing with a lender on the phone. In fact, all the productivity issues discussed above can be addressed by legal plans that include this ancillary benefit.

Vital questions

How do HR and benefits managers sort through all the plans to make sure their employees have a legal benefits plan with sufficient infrastructure to serve the worker adequately and protect the workplace? Several vital questions provide the needed clarity:

Are there legal plans that help employees overcome the personal financial and legal problems that may arise suddenly, as well as those that fester over time?

If so, will the amount of stress brought into the workplace be reduced?

Will this reduce the costs to the employer of handling stress in the workplace?

In addition to helping an employee find an attorney, can legal plans address the “ill-prepared for court system challenges” we discussed in earlier articles in this series?

Plans lacking the flexibility to address sudden litigation are inadequate. Legal benefits that don’t contribute to reduction of stress on the job fall short of the mark. And those that fail to do the early work to get an employee ready for his or her journey through the court system aren’t sufficient.

Management must evaluate legal plans by the same criteria they use for a health plan. No one would want a benefit that allows a surgeon to open the body for an operation, but not close the incision. Nor would a health care benefit that actually adds to employee stress be acceptable. The best health plans are those with an extensive support network that can help guide an employee through complex health decisions and their costs, and that can give the worker a heads-up on the possible needs and challenges ahead.

Legal benefits plans and health packages may seem like apples and oranges. However, a legal plan that doesn’t see the issue all the way to the completion of the litigation is like that coverage for only part of a surgical procedure. Just as a health benefits provider fails its clients when it does not provide them expert advice, a legal benefits plan without an advisory infrastructure lets down its participants. Good health care plans make sure employees aren’t slammed with surprise costs, and a good legal benefits plan should have that same depth of preparatory information.

‘Perfect storm’

In the previous segments in this series, we talked about how ill-prepared most employees are when legal problems strike. It is not their fault but often is caused by a “perfect storm”: a lack of familiarity with the way courts and lawyers work, coupled with the delays, costs and overall system structures built around compromising—not winning—legal cases.

While not all legal plans are created equal, the right legal plan has many components built into the infrastructure that address employee concerns and that overcome some of the difficulties workers face when they must engage with the legal system.

Whether your company is a small or mid-size business or a large multi-national corporation, you have many Jacks, Jills and Sams among your employees. Their problems may be hidden away in their own fretting psyches, but stress is mounting. They’ve tried all the simple solutions, and nothing has worked. Desperation simmers and a volcanic blast builds that could harm the employee, his or her workmates, and the products and processes for which they are responsible.

No one has found a way yet to halt the eruption of a literal volcano, but wise HR and benefits managers can prevent many of the explosions that affect employees and the workplace when workers face legal problems.

To construct a proper honeycomb, a bee has to consume more than eight pounds of honey to produce just one pound of the wax from which the intricate infrastructure is built. The result, however, is the generation of more honey. Companies can learn from the bee: If you want honey, build a honeycomb, not an empty shell. Provide a legal plan with the matrix of support to help court-embattled employees channel their energies into productivity rather than into stress.

Bob Heston is president and chief executive officer of Legal Access Plans.


This article can be also seen on Benefits Selling.