In the event of decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person. (Anon)
Wellbeing is social.
Stuff happens to us and around us in the context of our relationships with other people.
Reading the changes
If members of his chambers had taken time to notice and think about changes in Andrew’s demeanour and if colleagues in Beth‘s team, particularly her supervisor, had noticed changes in her productivity and mood, they might have been able to tackle their difficulties earlier, before things got out of hand.
When mental illness develops, changes will be noticeable to a greater or lesser degree by others who work with us.
These broadly relate to attendance, productivity, and mood.
There may be an increase in unexplained absences or sick leave.
People may become more disorganised, work more slowly, and make mistakes more often.
There may be a tendency to avoid delegating tasks or to try to work too hard.
Stressed staff may become indecisive and decision-making can be impaired.
There may be a noticeable increase in dissatisfied clients.
Changes in mood will almost certainly be noticed by co-workers, for example more frequent irritability or tearfulness, overreacting to difficult situations, tiredness or lack of motivation, apparent loss of self-esteem, a tendency to withdraw from social contact and possibly a lack of interest in self-presentation and appearance.
Although normally disguised, there may be increased use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco.
Breaking the ice
It may be hard to detect these subtle or more obvious changes in co-workers.
When noticed, it can be far harder to know how to raise this with them.
It can be difficult to know when to time a conversation and far easier to leave someone alone to have an emotion in the corner.
Mike Brearley, writing from the perspective of cricket captain and psychoanalyst, points out that “a leader or manager in any field, including sport, has to be able and willing to take in and think about the anxiety of those who work in the team. Sometimes it is a matter of getting to the bottom of an anxiety that has already been covered over. It then has to be conveyed, often subtly, to those in the team that their predicament and anxieties are bearable” .
In other words, a leader or colleague has to be willing to share something of the experience of another and help them think about the anxieties, accept the reality of the stresses, and to think together about how these can be managed.
Very rarely can we deal with things in isolation.
Andrew was helped by his GP, Beth by her LawCare volunteer, and Chris by his counsellor.
But how do we break the ice?
We need to listen.
One of the significant contributions of Carl Rogers’s ‘person-centred’ therapy was the introduction of what he termed the three ‘core conditions’ in the therapist, namely genuineness, a non-judgemental attitude, and empathy .
We need to be curious, but not intrusive, about the other person’s experience.
Even if the response is negative and we’re told that they are OK, the ice has been broken and they will know that somebody else is trying to get alongside them and help at a difficult time.
We can ask what we might be able to do to help.
This will give them space to reflect about what has been going on and what help might be available to them.
We can point to help that might be available from other agencies or professionals.
In the likely event that we cannot offer a solution to someone, we can offer support.
When Beth talked to the LawCare worker, she was able to gain an alternative perspective on her difficulties.
For the first time in ages she was aware that somebody else was taking a genuine interest in what she had been thinking and feeling.
This gave a sense of space to be able to reflect on the situation in a more realistic and objective way.
Once the ice has been broken then practical steps can be considered.
Initially this might simply be a visit to the GP to talk things over or checking out local counsellors …
 Brearley, M. (2015) The Art of Captaincy: What sport teaches us about leadership. London: Pan Books (p. 348).
 Rogers, C. R., (1957) The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-203.
(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)