Helping others come back from the black

03 March 2012 By Lawyers Weekly

Last week Graeme Cowan shared his advice on short-term solutions for lawyers suffering depression. This week, he shares advice on what colleagues can do to helpGraeme Cowan was the joint…

Last week Graeme Cowan shared his advice on short-term solutions for lawyers suffering depression. This week, he shares advice on what colleagues can do to help

Graeme Cowan was the joint managing director of a professional services firm before being struck down by a five-year episode of depression. He frequently shares his story on how he bounced back and thrived after depression and is author of the book series, Back From The Brink

In last week's edition I highlighted what an employee experiencing stress in the workplace should do. The short-term plan involved seeing a GP or a psychologist, getting 30 minutes of exercise per day, and confiding in someone you trust about your situation. It is also important during this trying time to see two other friends per week because they can be a fantastic source of support and encouragement.


The other strategies that should be considered for depression and/or anxiety include good nutrition (high fruit and vegetable content, lean protein and some omega) as well as relaxation/meditation and avoidance of alcohol and non-prescription drugs. Your GP or psychiatrist may also recommend medication.

The typical response to these suggestions is "I haven't got time", but the earlier you take action to address anxiety and depression, the higher the probability of a quick recovery. The World Health Organisation says these conditions are the most disabling in the western world today, yet there doesn't appear to be the trend to take them as seriously as say, a heart condition or cancer. The vast majority of people are less productive when they are in the amber or red range of the moodometer [see an explanation of the moodometer in part one]. It is like driving a six-cylinder car with only two cylinders operating. We have no hesitation organising to see a mechanic in these circumstances, and we must apply the same principles to our own mental health.

How can managers and team mates assist?

The first priority is to acknowledge that stress is a huge issue in law firms and contributes to more lost productivity than any other cause.

It is time to talk more openly about the pink elephant in the room and resolve to do something about it. The causes of these stressors are complex and involve individual, managerial, cultural, and systems issues.

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Today we are just focussing on what can be done by team mates and managers within the work group.

Guidelines for managers and team mates

1. Be observant and act early Often people experiencing substantial stress start changing behaviours - warning signs can include someone who starts withdrawing from social contact, whose grooming has declined, is absent more, is less productive than normal, and life has disappeared from their eyes. Everyone goes through ups and downs, but if these behaviours continue for two weeks it is time to act.

2. Be compassionate People who are struggling respond very well to genuine care. It is important to find a situation which is private where there is just the two of you so that you can build trust through your body language, tone and words. Maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position.

3. Use ice breakers to initiate a conversation Use open-ended questions such as "So tell me about ...", which require more than a "yes" or "no" answer

You may also like to use the following questions to start a conversation:

"I've noticed recently that your reports aren't up to your usual high standard. Is anything happening in your life that is contributing to this?"

"You know, I've noticed that you've seemed really down/worried/stressed for a long time now. Is there anyone you've been able to talk to about it?"

"Lots of people go through this sort of thing. Getting help will make it easier"

Practise your listening skills

Listen to what a person is saying, be open-minded and non-judgemental - sometimes, when someone wants to talk, they're not always seeking advice, but they just need to talk about their concerns

Be patient - let the person take their time

Avoid telling someone what to do: it is important to listen and try to help the other person work out what is best for them. Asking the right questions is the key.

4. Be encouraging

Encourage physical health. Maintaining regular exercise, a nutritious diet and getting regular sleep helps to cope in tough times.

Encourage the person to seek professional help from their family doctor, their employee assistance provider, or a mental health worker.

5. Be helpful

Offer to lighten someone's workload until they are recovering.

Offer to find out the phone number of a doctor or EAP counsellor if they don't have it.

Follow up to ensure they have sought professional help.

Be flexible with work hours to allow doctors or psychologists appointments and exercise etc.

It is unhelpful to:

Pressure them to "snap out of it", "get their act together" or "cheer up"

Stay away or avoid them

Assume the problem will just go away

Events over the last 18 months have contributed to unprecedented stress in the Australian legal workforce. Individuals, managers and organisations will all benefit if a caring and solution-focused approach is taken to the greatest contributor of lost productivity.

Click here to read part one: Coming Back from the Black

Helping others come back from the black
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