Express yourself: Spit-test for stress?

by Cameron Edmond17 Jan 2014
With the cost of living rising and the lines between work and life blurring, stress has become a major problem for Australian workplaces. Medibank 24/7 Health Advice Line found that 85% of Australians experience severe stress at work.

These stresses add up – feeling stressed rolls over into 15% of Australians taking sick days at least once a month, costing the economy $14.81 billion annually.
While awareness of workplace stress and burnout is growing in Australia, UK employers have taken a more direct approach in their attempt to combat it.

Mobile saliva testing technology – akin to that used in drug and alcohol testing – has become a tool for UK employers seeking to combat the problem. While some experts have praised the non-invasive nature of a saliva test, organisational psychologist Simon Brown-Greaves warned of its ramifications, The ABC reported.

"The question I have is what do we do when someone indicates a positive result to the stress test? In the case of drug and alcohol testing it’s pretty straight forward - if you have a positive test, you have breached your employment contract and/or you're stood down and unable to work,” he stated. “I'm not sure that those same principles can, or indeed should, apply if someone is stressed."

Privacy concerns have also been raised about the test, which is yet to take off in Australia. However, the Sydney Roosters and Bond University have both adopted the technology.

Key HR takeaways
Although the fact that this is a new issue means legal experts must tread lightly when commenting, Suzanna Dunsmore, senior associate of labour and employment at Squire Sanders, shared with HC some legal considerations for employers considering testing their employees’ saliva for stress:
  • In order to comply with the National Privacy Principles under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth), public sectors employers must careful consider the storage and disclosure of test results.
  • Organisations will need to consider their OSH obligations once they become aware an employee is suffering from stress. “For example, they will need to determine whether or not a positive stress test should render an employee automatically unfit for work, especially where the employee is not otherwise exhibiting signs of stress,” Dunsmore explained, adding that they may be under obligation to make adjustments to the employee’s role (hours worked, nature of work performed, etc).
  • Stress levels vary throughout the day. As such, the accuracy and veracity of saliva testing must be considered.
  • Stress may come under ‘mental impairment’, meaning that anti-discrimination legislation may apply to any action taken.
  • Stress test parameters should be identified and included in a specific policy for stress tests. These considerations may include when testing is likely to occur, how a test is interpreted, what will happen if employees test positive, etc.
What do you think of saliva testing for stress? Is it immoral and invasive, or a step in the right direction? Would you consider launching it in your organisation?


  • by Kerry Wilson 17/01/2014 3:38:55 PM

    If an employer instigated saliva test indicates that the employee is suffering stress, and the employee can show evidence that such stress is the result of the conditions of employment or some factor attributed to the employer, and causation is proved, it may be the basis for an action against the employer. In other words, the employer’s saliva test may set up a part of the employee’s claim.

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