Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, May 07, 2007

Professional Services - Value, Culture and Depression 4: Guidelines

In my last brief post in his series I referred to the case of John Brogden, the former opposition leader in the NSW State Parliament. It was a very brief and somewhat cryptic post because I was on my way to Queensland. I said that I would amplify it later.

At least in Australia, politics like law appears to be a depression prone profession.

In the Brogden case, John said something stupid, the media came down on him like hounds in a feeding frenzy, he resigned as leader then attempted to kill himself. I commented in passing at the time in a post on my personal blog, Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves. My focus then was on what the whole thing was doing to our political process. However, there are some broader issues.

In this post I have repeated the painting I carried in the first Brogden post. I drew this from Neil's blog, but do not know the painter. I have repeated it because it so accurately captures a point that I want to make. Before going on, those who would like to find out more about John's views on depression can find the interview transcript here.

As we saw in the case study on Free at Last, people's first reaction to someone suffering from depression is to tell them to pull their socks up, to buck up, to do better. Now look at the painting.

The subject sits alone. The tones are sepia, sombre, washed of colour. He sits next to what appear to be disembodied ears - people do not listen.

To suffer from depression is to be alone, lost in a sombre world. John Bunyan's novel Pilgrim's Progress speaks of the Slough of Despond. Bunyan meant it a little differently, but slough of despond has come to capture the position of those suffering from the black dog.

We know that people can come through depression.

The former Victorian Premier Geoff Kennett went through depression to become leader of Beyond Blue, Australia's leading anti-depression initiative. He spends much of his time helping people, something that would have seemed inconceivable to those opposed to his very rough and tumble style of politics.

Now John Brogden, too, seems to be coming through with the announcement that he has become patron of the telephone counselling service Lifeline NSW.

Lifeline was founded in 1963 by the late Reverend Dr Sir Alan Walker after he received a call from a distressed man who three days later took his own life. Determined not to let loneliness, isolation or anxiety be the cause of other deaths, Sir Alan launched a crisis line, which operated out of the Methodist Central Mission in Sydney.

Today, somewhere in Australia, there is a new call to Lifeline every minute and an average of over 450,000 calls are answered each year.

While we know that there can be an end to the slough of despond, this can seem inconceivable to the person suffering from depression.

Last year my own wheels came off.

At the worst point, I found it impossible to handle other than the most routine things. Making anything other than the most minor decisions was impossible. I felt completely alone, liable to break into tears. I was the person sitting on the shore.

Much of this I was able to conceal in a day to day sense. My experience has been that people suffering from depression often do not want to talk about it, are unable even to handle the conversation.

This makes them hard to help. It also means that things can get so bad that dire consequences can result, consequences that can come as a surprise to others because the problem has been concealed.

In my own case, and perhaps oddly, blogging itself proved to be the way out because at the time of greatest self doubt it showed me that I could still measure up in professional terms, made me feel that I could still contribute, gave me a sense of progress at a time when so many other things seemed to have gone wrong. Writing became its own catharsis.

I do not pretend that things are yet perfect. I am again fully functional in a professional sense, but still find it very hard to act, to make decisions, on strictly personal matters. But I can again think of a future.

If we link all this back to ways to handle depression in a work context, the core focus of this series, there are I think a couple of guidelines that can help guide management responses.

Guideline one is to reduce the pressure on the person, recognising that one symptom of depression is a reduced ability to cope.

Guideline two is to find ways of building self-esteem, something that is much harder to do.

Depression strikes at the heart of self-worth. That is why it is so destructive.

If we look at suicide among young rural males in Australia, a group with above average suicide rates, we can see a complex brought about by stress, drought, reduced opportunities, even the absence of potential mates because of the limited number of young women in some country areas. All this translates into lower self-esteem.

I do not have an answer as to the best way of increasing self-esteem. This has to be judged in the context of the individual case. However, my experience has been that even the act of caring in a sensitive way can help because it shows the person that they are valued.

Guideline three is to recognise that depression is a health problem, one that may require specialist help. You cannot address the performance problems that may be created by depression without addressing the underlying cause.

All this is not easy, I know. No firm can be expected to carry a sick worker indefinitely. However, this brings me to my final guideline.

Whatever action you take as a manager needs to be done in a fair, equitable, open and caring way.

Posts in this Series

Precursor posts:

The Depression series:


Legal Eagle said...


Your honesty is admirable. I thank you for sharing your story with me. I had a similar episode when I finished my degree and didn't get a job first off. I really hit rock bottom. Thanks to the support of family and friends, I made it out again.

Funnily enough, not getting a job first off was a blessing in disguise. It meant that I got opportunities to work in all kinds of different positions. And through one of my workmates, I met my all's well that ends well!

I think workplace depression is much more common than people think. Hopefully blogs such as yours will start people thinking!


Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, LE.

I think that too many professionals are worried about talking about their experiences, I know that I am, because it may affect their ability to get work.Yet if we do not share experiences, how are we to improve things? More importantly, how are we to help each other?

It seems to me that those of us, you and me who have been through the mill,need to share.

Personal isolation is a major problem and especially in individual professions such as law and medicine. If we can break this down, then we have achieved something.

A little while ago I started Wednesday Forums as a way of sharing experiences. It did not work because most traffic on this blog is via search engines. But I still think that it's important.

I am going to launch the forum again next Wednesday starting with depression as a topic.

In doing so, I do not want to stand between the audience and the discussion. The best forum would be one where I do not appear at all unless I can add something by way of summary or experience.

I will be putting something up on this shortly on my various blogs. Would you mind adding your own comments and if, appropriate, promoting?

Finally, your own experiences make my point. You came through the slough so that now, while tired (!), you stand as an example.

Legal Eagle said...


Have put a link to your forum on my blog. Hope some people see it and contribute! I think it's really important to say, "You can get through it!" and to highlight that depression is a treatable condition. When it is recognised, it can be managed so that it does not impact on the workplace or personal life.


ninglun said...

tpThe artist is Edvard Munch. See also Beyond Blue.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. Noted.