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Have you noticed that a colleague or team member doesn’t seem themselves? Here's how to help a teammate in trouble.

Have you wanted to outstretch a helping hand to a struggling colleague, but been too concerned that your actions may be misconstrued?  You are not alone, this reluctance is very common, often driven by concerns the conversation will appear intrusive, awkward, or even worse, that you’ll be faced with a disclosure (of poor mental health) that you are not equipped to deal with.

Preparing for the conversation

Fortunately, there are robust ways to prepare for and conduct productive and supportive mental health conversations.  The very first step is to notice changes that may indicate all is not well.  A drop in wellbeing often manifests on four levels:  in no particular order, impaired cognitive capacity, heightened emotional distress, physiological illness, and behavioural changes. They might be subtle changes, such as reduced engagement at firm social events, or more obvious such as unexplained absence, tardiness, ongoing fatigue, reduced productivity, sensitivity to feedback, increased errors, conflict etc. These changes often occur in clusters over a prolonged period of time, and potentially inhibit the individual’s capacity to meet core requirements of their role, such as commercial targets, quality outputs and positive working relationships. 

Although leaders who set a mentally healthy tone are critical to a positive workplace culture, it’s not just up to managers.  One can be a role model at any level of seniority. For instance, peers can set up regular check-in arrangements and buddy systems.

In firms where there is an embedded wellbeing culture, behavioural changes are observed and addressed early.  This is buoyed by regular conversations with staff which create psychologically safe and seamless communication pathways and help reduce the discomfort often experienced when addressing mental health.  Leaders are key players in such firms as they tend to role model openness towards mental health through policy development, consultation, access to support, training and development.  Role modelling requires one to “walk the walk” – in other words align one’s words with behaviours.  Verbally championing work-home balance, while regularly sending emails well out of business hours, creates dissonance and undermines the capacity to role model effectively.  Although leaders who set a mentally healthy tone are critical to a positive workplace culture, it’s not just up to managers.  One can be a role model at any level of seniority. For instance, peers can set up regular check-in arrangements and buddy systems.

Having the conversation

In such conversations ensure you present concerning, recent, concrete behaviours, rather than going on a hunch or hearsay. This is because behaviours are, for the most part, tangible and you are likely to have a shared recollection of recent events.  The more recent, the better.  Your role in the conversation is not to diagnose or solve the issue, it is to present an empathic ear, suspend judgment and explore pathways for help.  For example, ascertain whether your firm offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme), alternatively The Law Society’s SOS (Solicitor Outreach Service – 1800 592 296) and online wellbeing portal ( are both excellent, confidential, sources of support for lawyers to access. 

Maintain confidentiality if a disclosure is made, though keep in mind that it is common for colleagues to hesitate when discussing their mental health. They may report feeling fine though their behaviours indicate otherwise.  Don’t lose heart: they may not be ready to disclose.  Arrange to check-in at a later date.  However, if the individual references self-harm or suicidal intentions, take more immediate action.  Stay with them while seeking help from HR, a medical practitioner, a family member or emergency services in acute circumstances.

In summary, evidence points to the fact that as many as 50 per cent of people with mental health concerns do not seek help whether due to stigma, lack of awareness, or both.  Consequently, mental illness is often a lonely and isolated journey, resulting in negative personal and professional consequences.  Fortunately help is available, and just one observant, encouraging and well-informed colleague can make all the difference.

Lifeline – 131114
Solicitor Outreach Service – 1800 592 296
Suicide Call-back Service – 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636

Some practical tips


  • Leave yourself enough time to have the conversation. One hour is suggested.
  • Be clear about your intentions when planning the conversation. Your role is to listen, show empathy and withhold judgement.
  • Use specific behavioural examples to illustrate your concerns.
  • Discuss support options available within the firm and via the Law Society, as well as external options such as a GP or psychologist.     


  • Schedule a time when you are not going to be fully present with the individual, or your mind is likely to be on other things.
  • Position yourself as a lay counsellor. Instead listen and direct them towards help.
  • Use board brush, exclusively negative feedback. This can feel like a personal attack and elicit a defensive response.
  • Provide an endless stream of concerning behaviours.  Stick to two or three that are a priority.