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Stress may be tax deductible

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Some Australian workers are seeking counselling while others are getting hooked on yoga and massage in an attempt to take the workplace pressure down. In many cases, the Australian Taxation Office is giving these stress-relief methods the tax-deductible thumbs up.

With increasing workplace stress costing businesses every year, responsible employers are managing stress through a range of programs that could be tax deductible.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics' national health survey back in 2001 found that one in three adults suffered from moderate to extreme stress, representing an increase of nearly 40 per cent in just four years.

Furthermore, studies conducted around the same time by WorkCover found stress-related workers' compensation claims increased by 400 per cent in the past 10 years, signalling stress in the workplace is a growing problem.

Anne Palmer, director of Zen at Work, a company that specialises in stress management programs, believes the increase in technology and the subsequent rise in sedentary lifestyles are to blame for the increase in stress at work.

“Technology increases response times, and instead of creating breathing space, we have just increased our expectations, putting ourselves under more pressure,” she says.

“We are also leading more and more sedentary lifestyles, spending most of our time sitting down commuting or sitting down in meetings or in front of the computer and this lack of full physical movement creates all sorts of stresses on our system.”

Dr Timothy Sharpe, a psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute, believes the reasons for rising levels of stress are complex and varied.

“It's very important to identify the specific stressors a specific organisation, division or team is facing,” he says. “If you don't, it will fester and contribute to disruptive and costly problems such as absenteeism, presenteeism (spending long hours at work even when there is no work to do), high levels of turnover and reduced productivity and profitability.”

Identifying stress symptoms is the first step towards alleviating them. Symptoms can range from headaches, neck and shoulder tens ion and asthma, to behavioural symptoms such as anger and frustration.

Dr Sharpe believes coaching key people within an organisation and developing systems for responding to early warning signs is a strategy organisations should adopt.

“Offering professional support and ensuring that access to support is easy and non-threatening is crucial – teaching employees skills and strategies such as goal-setting, time and priority management, applied relaxation and meditation, healthy living, optimistic thinking and resilience, relationship and communication skills and team building,” he says.

In addition to educating staff on how to manage stress, Palmer advocates providing stress relief for staff in their work environment.

“Companies such as MBF, IAG and BT Finance run seminars and workshops for their staff, where businesses like Qantas and Time Inc run stress-relief programs, including massage, yoga and pilates,” she says. “They are seeing the benefits in terms of productivity and are finding the environment a happier, healthier place to work in.”

The tax deductibility of these services for the employer depends on whether they are work-related preventative healthcare, or work-related counselling.

Peter Bembrick, a partner at HLB Mann Judd Sydney, said the costs would always be tax deductible if they were for the benefit of employees. The key question is whether they are subject to fringe benefits tax.

Bembrick said work-related counselling seemed to be intended to have wide application, but businesses should keep in mind there had been no clear tax guidance.

“Courses such as yoga or pilates can potentially be claimed if they are provided as part of, or as a result of, counselling, and regarded as part of a plan to increase employee productivity, but there has been no clear ATO view on this.”

Therapeutic break

Treatment: Therapy, counselling
Tax status: Deductible if made available to all employees.

Treatment: Work-related preventive healthcare
Tax status: FBT-exempt if provided by a qualified medical practitioner, nurse, dentist or optometrist to prevent work-related trauma. Must be available to all employees with similar duties in similar locations.

Treatment: Work-related counselling
Tax status: No clear ATO guidance, but appears intended to have wide application. May include health and fitness courses, cigarette/alcohol dependency, vaccinations.

Published on: Monday, June 29, 2009

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