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InfoQ Homepage Articles Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 3: Tech-Ing Care of Your Community

Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 3: Tech-Ing Care of Your Community

Key Takeaways

  • When someone you care about is distressed, don’t let fear of doing the wrong thing paralyse you
  • Good social support during difficult times can lower the risk to mental health. What type of support a person needs will depend on the individual. The best way to know what they need is to ask them. People are experts in themselves.
  • Plan regular check-ins with your community during difficult times. This will enable you to notice when additional support might be needed.
  • Use the Samaritans ‘SHUSH’ tips for active listening to help manage difficult conversations: show you care, have patience, use open questions, say it back, have courage
  • When your ‘fight and flight’ response is activated your ability to see things from another person’s perspective is reduced. Carve out time for yourself and take timeouts if arguments start to arise with loved ones.

Humans are social animals. Back when Instagram was just a twinkle in our ancestors’ eyes, out on the savannah there were a lot of creatures that were stronger and faster than us. Our survival has been dependent on how we function as a community. We may not have had the bone-crushing jaws of a lion, but as tribal groups, we were able to hunt and gather effectively. In today’s world, we can belong to many tribes – our family, our teams, gaming groups, the friends we studied with.

Although we’re not building traps to catch our dinner together (or at least most groups aren’t!), these various communities all serve an important function in our lives. They provide us with a vital sense of connection and belonging. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we will have seen loved ones face countless challenges. It can be difficult to know what support a person needs, and sometimes being scared of doing the wrong thing can leave us paralyzed and we end up doing nothing at all. This article covers how we can take care of our communities by having a conversation with someone who is distressed, and how to manage conflict in challenging circumstances.

Before you can take care of your community, you need to take care of yourself. It’s like when you are on an airplane and you need to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can tend to other people. Our previous article in the ‘Tech-ing Care of Mental Health’ series, goes through practical tools for looking after your own mental health. Empathy is a finite resource.

Research has found that doctors demonstrate reduced activity in the parts of the brain involved in empathy when viewing photos of people in physical pain.  Frequent exposure to emotionally demanding situations risks burnout and can be a common problem amongst healthcare professionals. Turning down empathy when repeatedly exposed to emotionally demanding situations becomes adaptive. When we find ourselves giving so much to others, we need to make sure that we are topping up our own emotional bank account.

Once we have measures in place to take care of ourselves, we can discover that supporting others feels good. Cooperating groups are more likely to survive than groups who don’t, and so thanks to natural selection, we are hardwired to look out for each other. Doing good by others activates the reward pathways in our brain, reinforcing behaviour that is beneficial to our survival as a species. In a nutshell, giving is good for the giver as well as the receiver, and can contribute to our wellbeing.

The military has recognized the value of formal peer support when working in challenging conditions for a long time, embedding it in their ways of working. Good social support during difficult times can lower the risk to mental health, while poor social support is associated with anxiety, depression and PTSD. There are lots of definitions of social support, but a common way of conceptualizing is through four types of behaviours1:


Behaviour Category


Practical example with a hypothetical developer whose wife is poorly with covid-19


Expressions of empathy, love, trust and caring

Close friends and family members provide a listening ear, send regular messages and check in on the phone


Tangible support that provides resources

Grandparents isolate with the children so parents don’t have to worry about childcare during recovery. The developer’s line manager provides flexible working arrangements so he can focus on caring for his wife.


Advice and information

Their GP provides clinical advice on managing symptoms over the phone


Information that provides evaluative feedback and builds self-worth

His wife communicates how she is comforted by his care. Friends and family remind him of what a good husband he is.

Resilience is not something that exists in a person, but rather exists in the social bonds between people. Resources that are built into our social networks create what is known as ‘social capital’2. Learning from the military, within the UK rail industry, when a staff member has been involved in a traumatic event like a fatality or assault, the priority is providing practical support in managing the situation and a manager or other individual in their network undertakes regular follow-ups to check-in on how they are recovering. These principles of peer support and actively monitoring people when going through a stressful time translate well to many distressing events. Sometimes we can inadvertently think that someone might need a therapist, when often all the resources a person needs to cope may exist in the community. It is important not to medicalise a normal reaction to an abnormal event. The first article in this series provides pointers for taking care of your team, including formalising points to check-in with them, having people buddy up, and creating virtual social spaces. Consider how you can create similar touch points for your wider community. You may not be able to go to the pub together, but can you schedule in a regular online meet up? Out of sight, should not mean out of mind.

You may be wondering how do you know what type of support a person needs. Different people need different things at different times. People are experts in themselves. The best way to find out what a person needs is to ask them.

How to talk to someone who is distressed

When someone is distressed we can immediately start worrying about what we are going to do or say next. This worry prevents us from doing the most important thing – listening. We can feel like we are doing nothing when we are listening, but active listening can be powerful. Avoid immediately giving advice or talking about your own experiences. The Samaritans have distilled learning from their years of listening into these listening tips:


Show you care

Demonstrate your attention is on the speaker by making eye contact. Put away your phone and turn off any screens. If you're connecting over the phone or video call, make it clear you are taking the call in a place you won’t be distracted. When starting the conversation commit to not talking about yourself.

Have patience

Some people open up easily, for others it may take time. Silence can feel uncomfortable, but it can allow people space to think and find the words to express how they feel. If they've paused, wait, they may not have finished speaking.

Use open questions

Open questions need more than a yes/no answer. Follow up with questions like 'Tell me more'. These questions don't impose an opinion. They require a person to pause and reflect, and then hopefully elaborate. Try asking something as simple as, 'how are you feeling today'?

Say it back

Repeating back what you’ve heard enables you to check you’ve understood them and shows that you are listening. Hearing their experience in someone else’s words can also help them process what is happening.

Have courage

Sometimes it can feel intrusive to ask someone how they feel. You’ll soon be able to tell if someone is uncomfortable and doesn’t want to engage with you at that level. Being heard can take people by surprise, but often once people see that you are actively listening non-judgmentally, it can be just what a person needs.

The Samaritans have developed Wellbeing in the Workplace e-learning that can be helpful to learn more about active listening skills. These skills are valuable not only for looking after your team, but your wider community.

If someone has opened up to you, make a point to follow-up with them. While most people won’t need formal support, it is important to know what options are available. When distressed, it becomes harder to problem-solve. Be prepared to sit down with someone and talk through what formal support may be most appropriate, this could be more practical (e.g. financial support services, legal advice) or directly focussed on psychological needs (e.g. therapy). Depending on where you live and work, there will be different support services available. Check out what your company offers. Many employers have an Employee Assistance Programme that can provide practical and psychological support, or health insurance that covers treatment for mental ill-health. In some companies, these supports also cover families. There may be many great charities in your area. For those living in the UK, the NHS has a directory of mental health services that you can search by postcode. For those outside the UK, do look out for a support services directory.

Managing Conflict

Covid-19 can feel like all the worst parts of Christmas rolled into one. We may feel trapped at home with family, feeling bored with not much to do other than eat and drink. Trivial things like using the last of the milk can suddenly feel huge. Unlike Christmas, this is not just for one day and the context is one of loss and fear rather than comfort and joy. It is unsurprising that many people are feeling irritable and finding themselves getting increasingly wound up by those they are in lockdown with. 

Although it is important to connect with people, it is also important to disconnect from time to time, recognising when you might need to carve out time and physical space for yourself. Depending on where you live, this can be challenging. It can be useful to have an open conversation with those you are isolating with about how you can each ensure time to yourselves. For example, if you share a bedroom and living space with someone, it can be useful if you both agree to having the bedroom to yourself for one hour of the day. If you are going out to exercise, allow yourself to do this alone from time to time if it helps. Negotiating these boundaries in peacetimes can help keep home harmonious.

It may sound like a cliché, but if you find you are getting frustrated or angry, it’s important to take a timeout, giving everyone space to calm down. Our fight or flight response is activated when we become angry, which shuts down the part of our brain that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and problem-solve. You will both be neurologically less able to listen to each other. It will be much easier to see each other’s points of view when you are feeling calmer. It can also be helpful to talk to someone neutral about how you are feeling on your timeout. When we feel heard and understood by someone else, it can facilitate our ability to see things from other people’s perspectives.

When managing conflict try to explain how you are feeling using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ accusations. For example, ‘when X happened, I felt Y. I would really appreciate it if we could try to do Z instead. What do you think?’

Try using the active listening skills discussed above, using open questions and reflecting back to the person what you’ve heard. Try to be curious and understand what has upset the other person, and what they would like to be different. If you feel too overwhelmed to listen, ask to take time out and discuss it when you are both feeling calmer.

Once you have identified what you can both do to help resolve the issue, try to move on. Focus your attention on something else or do something you both enjoy together. For example, you could dress up for dinner, have a games night, cook, exercise or watch a film. Spending quality time with one another and connecting over a shared interest is important.

If you find yourself needing specialist support with your relationship there are organisations that can help. Within the UK Relate can provide support for those experiencing relationship worries. Citizen’s Advice also has information on organisations that can offer help and support for domestic abuse.

The aim of the ‘Tech-ing Care…’ article series has been to provide some practical tools to the tech industry that would help people take care of themselves, their teams and their communities. Human beings are more complex than the machines that we build. The unpredictability of human behaviour can be disconcerting. Distress is a normal part of the human condition and can be a functional response to challenging circumstances. When it comes to supporting those around you, we can be paralysed by fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. You don’t need to have the answers, you can just listen.

About the Author

Dr. Michelle O’Sullivan, clinical psychologist, provides advice on interacting with your fellow workers, friends and family to provide support to their mental wellbeing in difficult times. She discusses connecting and listening skills, which are key to being an effective team member in any environment. Practical researched tips to help you think about yourself and others.


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