Chuchotage/ Whispering

Escort Interpreter Manual-1The Interpreter’s Functions and Duties Defined

The interpreter’s escort duties are many and varied and cannot be fully covered in this brief manual. The following paragraphs, however, attempt to set forth the basic principles which are intended to serve as a guide to the interpreter in meeting the problems which arise in the course of the assignment. They have been grouped around several main topics; namely, interpretation proper, the programming function, interpreter-grantee relationship, suggestions of a general nature, and emergency situations.

Interpretation Proper

The interpreter is expected to interpret conversations and speeches as required to facilitate the official mission of the foreign visitor. On such occasions he should keep out of the conversation except as interpreter, letting the principals carry on the discussion even when the interpreter himself may have the answer to a question addressed by one of the parties to the other. At no time should the interpreter permit his own prejudices or opinions to color his interpretation, and he should faithfully interpret the substance of all statements. Occasions may arise, however, on which he may have to exercise discretion in guiding the conversation or in toning down unnecessarily tactless or offensive questions or statements encountered in the course of the trip. There must, however, be no censorship nor refusal to interpret a statement.
It frequently happens that the visitor requests the interpreter before a given interview to ask certain questions for him. In such cases the interpreter should be careful to make it very clear that he is posing the question at the grantee’s request. As a matter of fact, even in such cases it is preferable to have the grantee at least prompt the asking of the question at the time of the meeting, in order to avoid giving the local sponsor the impression that the interpreter rather than the grantee is doing the talking and cause the sponsor to feel that he is cut off from direct communication with the visitor.

The Programming Function

The preparation of the grantee’s program is the responsibility of the programming agency, which plans the itinerary in accordance with the grantee’s interests and wishes. Consequently the grantee should be encouraged to make known his interests and wishes at the outset, so that they may be given due consideration. At the same time it should be pointed out to him that once he has given his approval to a certain program and itinerary, and on that basis commitments have been entered into, reservations made and tickets purchased, it is reasonable to expect him to adhere to the schedule thus established, unless there should be compelling reasons for doing otherwise.

The program worked out in general outline by the programming agency at the outset is implemented by local contacts or sponsors in the course of the trip. The programming agency will provide the interpreter with the names of these contacts prior to his departure from Washington. It may happen en route, however, that for one reason or another the program breaks down or an unexpected gap develops. At such time the interpreter should contact the appropriate contact or sponsor in the locality or, if there is none, his programming agency. If this is not feasible, he should take the initiative to improvise a program in line with the objectives of the mission. It is well for the interpreter to discuss such eventualities with the programming agency at the beginning of the trip in order to determine the degree of initiative the responsible officer may wish him to exercise at such time.
Upon arrival in a given locality, the interpreter will establish contact with the local sponsor and together with him and the grantee to over or work out, as the case may be, the details of the program in the particular area. Local sponsors prefer to have the grantee present while this is being done. The interpreter might point out to the local sponsor what the visitor has seen on previous stops and what aspect of the program the visitor wishes to have emphasized in the given city, making it clear that he is speaking for the grantee. This will tend to eliminate unnecessary repetition which might work against the best interests of the program.
On the basis of the program worked out in this manner, the interpreter should plan each day’s schedule well in advance and see that this schedule is clearly understood by the visitor and acceptable to him. In this connection it is well to impress upon him the importance of keeping appointments on time.
In order to facilitate communication and avoid misunderstanding, the interpreter should suggest that local sponsors and contacts leave messages at hotels not only in the name of the grantee but in the name of the interpreter as well. Too frequently, unnecessary delays and even hurt feelings have resulted from the grantee not understanding and consequently ignoring important messages, without the interpreter realizing what was going on. This suggestion, passed on by the programming agency to the local contacts at the beginning of the trip, may go far to forestall such unnecessary complications.

Interpreter-Grantee Relationship

The job of the escort interpreter is not an easy one, and a great amount of patience, tact, and diplomacy is frequently required of him in order to maintain a good working relationship with the grantee. His task will be greatly facilitated if he sees to it that the grantee is given at the outset a copy of the sheet setting forth some of the guidelines with regard to the functions of the interpreter. This is best done through the appropriate CU officer.

Briefly, the interpreter’s main task consists in providing interpretation at official interviews and discussions and in otherwise assisting the grantee to achieve his program objectives. Sightseeing trips and social functions are frequently an integral part of the program, and when this is the case the interpreter is expected to serve in his official capacity on such occasions.

Aside from the time required for such official duties and for incidental aid relating to reservations and other essentials of the itinerary, however, the interpreter’s time should be regarded as his own although it is, of course, difficult to define or limit the actual workday on an escort assignment. Rather, the interpreter should keep in mind at all times that it is his function to help make the visitor’s stay a success and that his actions will have an important bearing on the visitor’s impression of the United States. Nevertheless, the interpreter should not regard himself as a factotum on duty 24 hours a day. He is not expected to prepare for the visitor any written translations not directly related to the immediate needs of the mission, and, if given, such assistance should generally be confined to possible letters of thanks and similar matters. Neither is the interpreter required to assist the foreign visitor as a matter of course in purely personal diversions or to handle such minor details for him as sending his laundry out, accompanying him to movies, ordering his meals, and so forth, expecially after the visitor has been in the United States for some time and can reasonably be expected to have oriented himself in these matters. Some overall guidance in this respect at the outset is, however, in place in most instances.
When appropriate, a moderate degree of social companionship is encouraged, although this will vary from assignment to assignment and depends largely on the personalities involved. However, just as the grantee will understand that the interpreter is not at his disposal at all hours of the day or night, the interpreter must realize that the grantee may not desire his company everywhere or at all times. The interpreter should therefore respect the grantee’s desire for occasional privacy and not force his presence on the visitor when the latter would prefer to be left alone.
There are, moreover, occasions when the interpreter should definitely refrain or offer to refrain from accompanying the grantee. This applies, for instance, when the grantee is invited to social functions by officials or other persons from his own country, where language is no problem. At such times the interpreter should not go along unless specifically requested to do so. Even when invited under such circumstances, he need not necessarily accept the invitation, if he prefers not to, since his presence will not really be required in his official capacity. In that event, however, he should make certain that his refusal will not hurt any sensibilities.

Unless there are very special circumstances, the interpreter should stay at the same hotel as the grantee, throughout the trip, since the problem of contact and communication with local sponsors, etc., is otherwise unnecessarily complicated. The interpreter is not, however, expected to stay in a hotel at his home base, unless his doing so is considered essential in the interest of the program. Regulations differ in this respect for staff and for contract interpreters, and before undertaking to incur hotel expenses at home base, the interpreter should familiarize himself with the provisions set forth in the section dealing with the reimbursement of expenditures incurred at home base by an interpreter of his particular employment category. The interpreter and grantee should not ordinarily share a room and in general should maintain a certain degree of formaility in their relations with each other.

With the exception of the special circumstances described under the heading “Handling Grantee Expense Funds,” interpreters are not expected to defray any of the visitor’s expenses, since on the average assignment the interpreter has no expense account for such purposes. Thus the grantee must pay for his own taxi fares, tips, etc., and it is desirable that he be made to understand this as early as possible, preferably at the initial meetings at CU or the programming agency. At the same time, of course, the grantee should not be permitted to pay any of the interpreter’s expenses. In case the visitor encounters serious monetary or other difficulties, the programming agency and/or CU should be contacted at once.

At the end of the assignment the interpreter should not merely take leave of the visitor but should make sure that he is in competent hands or that the further course of his trip is clear. This may involve putting the visitor on the train, plane, or ship for the return trip home, per previous arrangement. If, on the other hand, the trip officially ends in Washington, the interpreter should not consider his assignment ended until he has taken the visitor back to the office where he received him (generally CU or the programming agency) and is assured there that his services are no longer needed.

At the conclusion of the trip every grantee must obtain a sailing permit from the Internal Revenue Service, unless he holds a diplomatic passport and/or diplomatic visa or a B-2 visa and had no income in the U.S. The interpreter is called upon to assist the grantee in this matter.

General Suggestions

As a general rule, interpreters should not use their own cars to transport visitors in preference to public transportation over long distances, unless specifically authorized.
By comparison with the average American, many of the grantees are profoundly indifferent to matters of time, especially as regards promptness in keeping appointments. The interpreter should anticipate difficulties on this score and may need to employ the utmost diplomacy and patience to achieve a satisfactory solution of this problem.
Much of the success of the exchange program is based on the voluntary cooperation of many persons throughout the country. It is well for the interpreter to call this fact to the grantee’s attention from time to time. Moreover, the interpreter should make a point of expressing the grantee’s and his own appreciation for assistance rendered, whether official or otherwise, even if the grantee should fail to do so. This will help to maintain the contact’s goodwill toward the program in general as well as facilitate the task of the interpreter in particular, should he pass the same way on another assignment. In general, the interpreter should never forget that, for public relations reasons and the good of the program, the impression he makes on the programming agency, the local sponsors, and other local representatives is every bit as important as his relations with the grantee. While he should be concerned with protecting the health and interest of the grantee, if necessary, against overprogramming by an occasional overly enthusiastic local sponsor, he should be very diplomatic and avoid creating the impression that he is taking the side of the grantee without due regard for the feelings of the local representatives and the efforts they may have expended with the best intentions.

During extended trips it is frequently advisable for the interpreter to send brief notes a few days in advance to the hotel and local sponsor at the next stop on the itinerary, to serve as a reminder of the group’s impending arrival. Such notes serve to keep hotel reservations open and are helpful to the sponsor in planning his schedule. It is also well, whenever possible, to advise sponsors in advance of new program ideas or saturation of previously stated interests. The San Francisco Reception Center, for instance, has specifically requested such programming advice.
The interpreter will do well to confirm continuing travel arrangements immediately upon arrival in each city.

Many grantees are in the habit of making numerous and cumbersome purchases at almost every stop. It has been found helpful for the interpreter to try to discourage them from doing so to some extent. If persuaded to wait until their last stop, frequently New York, they will not have to carry their purchases all over the country at great annoyance to themselves and possibly to the interpreter. Moreover, this may eliminate the necessity of paying for excess baggage and the possible danger of running out of money before the end of the trip. Grantees who acquire a great deal of printed matter might also be encouraged to mail these materials to their homes periodically in order to lighten the burden.

The interpreter’s manner, dress, and general appearance should at all times reflect the fact that he is on official duty.

Source: Escort Interpreter Manual, 1963, Department of State, Washington, USA.





My simultaneous kit

BEST OF: “España ha dejado de ser católica”

MAKING OF: “España ha dejado de ser católica”

PREPARATION: “España ha dejado de ser católica”

Don’t start speaking until you know you can complete a grammatical sentence…

but you don’t have to complete the sentence you originally had in mind nor the same sentence the speaker finishes.

1. Don’t start speaking until you know you can complete a grammatical sentence. Any sentence, no matter how short, but  you must be able to finish a sentence.

(Any grammatical sentence….but if the speaker stops mid way and changes tack it’s the interpreter who looks like a fool. One of the fundamental rules of learning to interpret is “finish you sentences!”).

2. But you don’t have to complete the sentence you originally had in mind.

(The interpreter can change his/her mind while speaking and come up with a better sentence than the original idea, no harm in that but because there was always a complete sentence in mind the interpreter has a safety net.)

3. nor the same sentence the speaker finishes.

(The speaker may well launch himself into long complex sentence structures which he may well get tangled up in…the interpreter can create shorter sentences from that long one to gain clarity. Jones calls this the salami technique.)

Jones’ example goes something like this…..

Imagine the speaker begins as follows,

“Despite the ruling of the European Court of Justice last month, the UK government has decided not to change its much criticised and controversial policy on the disposal of waste products from hospitals.”

By the time the intepreter has heard the words “last month” he can form a grammatical sentence, for example, “The ECJ made a ruling last month.” This may seem simplistic but as we said above it is a safety net, and can be changed as we go along. What is crucial is that the interpreter start with a whole sentence in mind.

As the speaker continues the interpreter may for example aim to continue,

“The ECJ made a ruling last month, despite which the UK government has not decided to change policy.”

The interpreter may also leave the original sentence and start a new one.

“The ECJ made a ruling last month. Despite this the UK government has not decided to change policy.”

It his is a technique and as such it needs to be practised. Knowing this in theory will not help you. Making its application the goal of practice sessions over a number of days or weeks will. Initially it will seem to make interpreting more difficult because it is new to us and because it is a technique that is not natural – our natural reaction is to start too early, particularly when we are nervous – but once mastered you will find that this technique eliminates many of the common pitfalls that interpreters encounter. For example, correcting oneself, restarting sentences, forgetting the grammatical structure of the beginning of long sentences and therefore not matching the end to it correctly etc.

Conference Interpreting Explained, Roderick JONES.


The A B C of Retour

Directionality in Interpreting. The ‘Retour’ or the Native?

Godijns, R. and M. Hinderdael (eds.) (2005). Gent: Communication and Cognition.

The question of directionality in conference
interpreting, i.e. whether interpreters should interpret only into
their mother tongues or also into a ‘B’ language, namely practise
what some now call retour interpreting, is one which has been hotly
debated by both professionals and trainers since interpreting has
been recognized as a profession. In the past, views were polarised
into the Western European camp, which favoured interpreting
exclusively into the mother tongue from several different foreign
languages (in simultaneous, at least) and the Eastern European camp
led by the Soviet Union, where interpreters would interpret in both
directions and where interpreting from the A language into the B
language in both consecutive and simultaneous was

Directionality in Interpreting. The ‘Retour’ or the
Native? edited by Rita Godijns and Michael Hinderdael, presents ten
articles written by academics working in the field of conference
interpreting, which explore the reasons for this polarization and
which, broadly speaking, seek to challenge one or other of the
models. While all the contributors are from universities in Western
Europe and thus might be expected to challenge the Soviet model and
uphold the Western European model this, most interestingly, is not
the case. It is certainly interesting for me, as although I was
trained according to the Western model and therefore deeply
mistrustful of interpreters who claim to be able to inhabit more
than one language booth with ease, I found many of the articles
were able to challenge my views in a convincing
They are convincing because the arguments are based
on solid research and they are cogently argued. The authors,
broadly speaking, are well known for their research in the field.
Daniel Gile, the author of the first article entitled
“Directionality in Conference Interpreting: A cognitive view” is a
professional conference interpreter and Professor at Lyon II
University who has written seminal texts on interpreting. Indeed,
so eminent is he that every single contributor makes reference to
his work. His argument is that “interpreting directionality
preferences are contradictory and based on traditions rather than
research”, a point which is made by almost all the contributors.
The fact that the Soviet school and the Western European school
evolved with such differing views as to the right direction would
seem to support thIs claim. So on what did the two “schools” base
their views?
Olaf-Immanuel Seel explains that the pro retour
camp are concerned primarily with “cultural competence”: an
interpreter is more culturally competent in his mother culture and
therefore more competent to interpret out of his mother tongue, as
understanding is at the root of interpreting (Seel’s article is
concerned with non verbal discourse patterns). Anne Martin explains
that the Soviet model was based on the premise that “no one is
exempt from comprehension problems and as one cannot interpret what
one has not understood, the comprehension phase must be given
priority over production”. Emilia Iglesias Fernandez explains that
Soviet thinking was based on the view that as the most important
phase in interpreting is understanding, its success depends on a
range of cognitive processes which are more easily completed in the
mother tongue. Moreover, it is argued that it is “cognitively more
economical” for the interpreter to have fewer options to choose
from in the expression phase, thus interpreting into a foreign
language, paradoxically, facilitates the interpreting process.
Fernandez also claims that “at the very beginning, simultaneous
interpreting was invariably carried out into the interpreter’s
foreign language” and that it is only since interpreters have been
employed by international organizations that this process has been
reversed. Gile poInts out that many authors who are opposed to
interpreting into the B language in simultaneous nonetheless do so
routinely in consecutive while maintaining that consecutive has a
higher status than simultaneous. For Gile, they are thus guilty of
flawed logic.

Despite these arguments, AIIC, the professional association of conference interpreters,
maintains that interpreters should interpret into their mother
tongue. The theory behind this, known as the théorie du sens, was
developed by Seleskovitch and Lederer of the Paris school ESIT.
Seleskovitch maintained that interpretation into the interpreter’s
A language is always of higher quality. As Clare Donovan points out
“a B language is by definition less versatile and flexible than an
A language” and interpreters working out of their mother tongue
find the process more tiring and stressful than into their mother
tongue as they do not have the same intuition and confidence of
expression. Her research demonstrates that recordings of
interpretations into B show a “greater tendency to break down or
become unusable”. Déjean Le Féal refers to the “intrinsic
weaknesses” of retour and cites her own research which shows that
it is “more subject to destabilization than interpretation into the
mother tongue”.
Whichever camp you belong to, the fact remains that
interpreters have to adapt to changes in global markets and take a
pragmatic approach to such factors as supply and demand. Although
interpretation into the mother tongue remains the norm in the
international organizations (with the exception of the Chinese
booth), interpreting out of the mother tongue is common on the
private market, although it should be pointed out that it seems
much more common and accepted in some countries than in others (the
Spanish find interpreting into B wholly acceptable but the French
do not and it would be a brave interpreter indeed who dared
encroach on the territory of the French booth). But offering an
interpreting service is a costly exercise and private sector
organizers can reduce their costs by insisting interpreters work in
two directions. Furthermore, the accession of new member states to
the EU with minority languages has meant that interpreters with
minority languages as mother tongue are now required to perform
retour even within an international organization.
The editors of the book point out that “their “goal was to present readers with
some interesting and fresh viewpoints, which will […] stimulate
debate on this very controversial issue and lead to further
research”. I believe readers of Directionality in Interpreting will
indeed be encouraged to carry out further research, as entrenched
as interpreters seem to be in favouring either the retour or the
native, it is a book which will make them keener than ever to prove
their view is the right one. And any book aimed at academics which
sparks an enthusiasm for pursuing more research must surely be a
good thing.

Jacqueline Page
Roehampton University,

English is enough, right?


The internationalisation of English has begun to provoke a two-fold enervation. In many societies, imported English, with its necessarily synthetic, ‘pre-packaged’ semantic field, is eroding the autonomy of the native language-culture. Intentionally or not, American-English and English, by virtue of their global diffusion, are a principal agent in the destruction of natural linguistic diversity. This destruction is, perhaps, the least reparable of the ecological ravages which distinguish our age. More subtly, the modulation of English into an ‘Esperanto’ of world commerce, technology, and tourism, is having debilitating effects on English proper”.

George Steiner “After Babel”, 1973.

Why proper English rules OKby Simon Kuper, Financial Times.

There are several ways to overcome the problem of communication between people who speak different mother tongues. None of these ways is ideal. One solution, obviously, is that one of the interlocutors speaks the language of the other. Problems may arise: the knowledge of the language may not be adequate, one side is making a concession and the other has an immediate and significant advantage, there are possible political implications, it may be difficult to apply in multilateral diplomacy, etc. A second possibility is that both sides use a third, neutral, language. A potential problem may be that neither side possesses full linguistic knowledge and control, leading to possible bad misunderstandings. Nevertheless, this method is frequently applied in international practice because of its political advantages. A third formula, using interpreters, is also very widely used, particularly in multilateral diplomacy or for negotiations at a very high political level – not only for reasons of equity, but because politicians and statesmen often do not speak foreign languages.

So, which language is the diplomatic one? The answer is not simple at all. To start with, there is no single diplomatic “lingua francathat could be inscribed in the above-mentioned catchphrase. In the past there were periods when one language or another served as a common, widely-used means of inter-state communication, although usually limited to certain geographic areas or political groups of countries. Such a role was played by Acadian (Asyrian-Babilonian), by literary Chinese, by Greek “koin`e” (a mixture of dialects, based mainly on Ionic and Attic), and later by mediaeval Greek, then Latin, Arabic, Turkish, and yet later by Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, and recently, more and more, by English. Very often attempts have been made to impose one language or another, with the argumentation that it is “clearer”, “more flexible”, “more expressive”, “more eloquent, subtle or refined”, “most suitable for international negotiations”, etc. The mere fact that historically such a role has been taken in turns by so many languages proves that linguistic or semantic reasons are not decisive. On the contrary, it can be said that the dominant role of one language or another in diplomacy has resulted from the political, strategic, economic, cultural or other domination of one power or another in international relations.

J. Kurbalija and H. Slavik, Language and Diplomacy, 2001.

Interpreter’s mid-career crisis

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.”

John Ruskin

How do work patterns affect us?

Jobs often used to be for the best part of someone’s working life. They provided security, stability and structure. However, people can now expect many changes in the course of their working lives. These may include changing employer, re-training, periods of unemployment, and even complete changes of occupation. More and more, people have short or fixed-term contracts, or work on a self-employed basis, and have career breaks. Individuals usually have to construct their own career paths, which can lead to uncertainty about the future, as well as unrealistic workloads for some and no work for others. And while it’s possible to embrace an alternative point of view, and thrive without paid employment, unemployment generally leads to poor physical health, poor mental health and poverty.

So being in paid employment is generally considered to be a good thing. It is no longer just a way of earning a living: it provides identity, contact and friendship with other people, a way of putting structure in your life and an opportunity to meet goals and to contribute.

Having said that, work stress is now more of an issue than ever: every year, millions of work days are lost because people experience illnesses caused or made worse by their work.

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as ‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.’

Some of the symptoms of stress are:

  • physical – fatigue, indigestion, headaches, appetite and weight changes, joint and back pain
  • psychological – anxiety, tearfulness, feeling low, mood changes, indecision, loss of motivation, increased sensitivity
  • behavioural – increased smoking and drinking, withdrawal or aggression, lateness, recklessness.

What causes stress at work?

The job

Job demands that can lead to stress include: having too much or too little to do; work that is too difficult or too easy; being under pressure to meet deadlines; shift work; and physically demanding work. People doing repetitive tasks, at a high pace, with little freedom to take decisions are especially at risk. Lack of control over the pace of the work or how to get the job done is one of the most common causes of work-related stress.

Poor working conditions, such as noise or bad lighting, poorly designed equipment, exposure to hazards or witnessing other people’s suffering are all sources of stress. People who are simply in the wrong job for their skills, abilities and expectations are also likely to experience stress.

Your role in the organisation

Problems can occur if people aren’t clear about the scope or responsibilities of their job. Conflicting demands make them feel very torn; for example, the demands of quantity versus quality, or quantity versus safety, or being expected to do things against their beliefs or personal and professional standards. This is made worse if there is a lack of managerial or supervisory support. In turn, managers and supervisors can find that the responsibility to provide this support conflicts with other goals expected of them by the organisation; or they may not receive the training to enable them to offer effective support.

Career development

Feeling trapped in a dead-end job, or insecure, is also very undermining. This may be because there are only limited opportunities for promotion and training, a threat of redundancy through organisational restructuring, or because you are working on a fixed-term contract.

Relationships at work

The relationships we have with our colleagues, can have an enormous effect on the quality of our working life, and can be significant sources of stress or support. Supportive relationships can give protection against other workplace pressures; stressful relationships can intensify them.

Working in isolation from others makes it more difficult to build supportive relationships; for example, for people who work at home or run their own small businesses. But isolation isn’t only physical – it may include being the only man or woman or person of an ethnic minority in a workplace.

Bullying is a major source of stress and is very destructive, to the person being subjected to it and to the organisation itself.

Organisational structures and culture

The operating style or ‘culture’ of an organisation may cause problems. It may include lack of communication, consultation or participation in decision making, and unjustified restrictions on behaviour. If there are no policies in place to cover these matters, there will be no clear standards for the behaviour that is expected, and no system for individuals to challenge racism, sexism or other discrimination or harassment. This promotes the attitude that people should just deal with it on their own. An organisation that runs on fear, or interprets stress as individuals not coping, will simply generate more stress.

Personal factors

What we bring with us to work can also contribute to stress. This may be the conflicting demands of managing home and work life; personal crises, such as illness or bereavement; financial worries; or the psychological factors that can drive us to unhealthy working patterns.

One common pattern is when a person works harder and harder to close the gap between what they are achieving, and what they think they should be achieving. They stop taking breaks, lose touch with their own needs and sense of enjoyment, and feel guilty when they are not working. Working harder brings exhaustion, their performance deteriorates, and they become more and more anxious, because they aren’t making real progress. It leads to loss of energy, emotional exhaustion, poor sleep, indecisiveness, and sometimes increased drinking, smoking, eating or spending. The person ends up feeling trapped, and can become depressed.

How can I tackle stress?

Preventing stress means achieving a balance between demands and the capacity to respond to them. Learn to recognise what you find stressful in the work environment and what helps you work well. Taking action, however small, can improve your life at work and stop you feeling trapped or the victim of people’s demands. You may be free to do some things without reference to anyone else, but some things you will need to negotiate, formally or informally, with colleagues or managers. However, there are many things employees can do for themselves.

Taking control

  • Develop good relationships with colleagues so that you can build up a network of support.
  • Talk to someone you trust, at work or outside, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed. This is not a sign of weakness, it’s taking responsibility for your wellbeing.
  • Treat colleagues with the respect and consideration you want from them.
  • Communicate if you need help.
  • Be assertive – say no if you can’t take on extra demands.
  • Be realistic – you don’t have to be perfect all the time.
  • Write a list of what needs to be done; it only takes a few minutes and can help you to prioritise, focus and get things in perspective. It can also feel satisfying to tick items off once they have been done.
  • If everything starts to feel overwhelming, take a deep breath. Try and get away from your desk or situation for a few minutes – get a drink or go to the toilet.
  • Try and take a walk or get some fresh air during the day – exercise and daylight are beneficial to mental as well as physical health.
  • Make sure you drink enough water and that you eat during the day to maintain your energy levels.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques.
  • Work regular hours and take the breaks and holidays you’re entitled to. If things are getting too much, book a day off or a long weekend.
  • Try not to work long hours or take work home with you. This may be all right in the short term, if the work has a specific purpose and is clearly defined – a team effort to complete an urgent project may be very satisfying – however, working longer hours does not generally lead to better results.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance – nurture your outside relationships, interests, and the abilities your job does not use.

Preventing stress with the help of your employer

  • Make your physical work environment as comfortable to work in and appropriate to your needs as you can. If necessary, enlist the help of a health and safety officer.
  • Discuss your workload, or the organisation of your work with your manager or supervisor. Get feedback on your work, and discuss setting realistic targets and how you can solve any problems you are having. If you can’t resolve problems in this way, talk to the human resources department or trade union representative.
  • Ask how your goals fit in with the organisation’s overall aims and objectives so that you can see a real purpose to your work.
  • Discuss the possibility of flexitime (flexible working hours), if, for example, you have difficulty with rush-hour travel, or need to leave work early some days to get to a support group or fit in with child care.
  • Make use of the support already on offer: some organisations provide employee assistance programmes providing free advice and counselling; others have internal systems such as co-worker support.

Organisational culture

  • Be aware of any policies on harassment, bullying or racism, so that you know what behaviour the company considers unacceptable, how to challenge it and what support there is.
  • If stress, work overload, bullying or poor communication are issues for you, they are probably issues for others in the organisation as well. Sharing your concerns with those you trust could lead to more of a joint effort to get your employer to introduce changes; for example, better consultation within the organisation, an anti-bullying policy, a commitment to tackling stress through health and safety policies, or an investment in staff support.
  • If you are aware of bad practice in the organisation (for example, financial corruption or abusive behaviour towards clients or staff) find a way of speaking out about it. Do protect your own position though, and get advice, for example, from the union, employee assistance programme (if your organisation has one) or Public Concern at Work .

Career development: staying or moving on

  • Make the most of any opportunities for training and development offered by your employer.
  • Keep your CV up to date, and plan for the future. It’s worth thinking about your career path, whatever your situation, so that you can be positive about staying or moving on.
  • Use careers counselling or similar expertise if you feel stuck, bored, want a change of direction, or feel your job is doing you harm and you don’t know what you want to do. A crisis can force a change of direction, though it’s probably not a good idea to make major life-decisions when you are in the middle of one. Look at the options, when you are able, so you can act when the time is right.
  • Use whatever counselling or support is available, if you are facing redundancy or retirement.

What if I do become distressed at work?

Anyone can become upset and reveal to their workmates that they are human. People who use mental health services may have particular need for a safe space to express feelings. If someone is going through a mental health crisis or breakdown, whether or not it’s caused by work stress, it will be experienced in their working life.

If you can learn to identify what triggers your stress, this will make it a lot easier to find the right coping strategy. If you do get distressed, keep a diary of what happened, how you felt and how you reacted, so that you can cope better the next time the same type of situation arises; or indeed to learn to avoid that type of situation if at all possible.

Ways of coping

  • A brief time-out period when you are distressed could restore you and allow you to continue working.
  • You may need a quiet place away from colleagues and client to shout or cry.
  • You may prefer someone to be with you to help calm you down or just listen.
  • You could learn specific therapeutic techniques using breathing or meditation, or exercises that improve your energy.

These are just some examples, and it may take a few tries at finding what works for you. But once you know what you are likely to need, you may be able to make or negotiate with your employer, in advance, the conditions that will allow you to help yourself feel better and get back to working.

Getting help

If you are worried about your mental health, or other people are expressing concerns, you may want to get professional help. This is not giving in, it’s taking action. If you work for a large organisation, they may have an occupational health service. Someone in the workplace is not only easier to access, but has the advantage of understanding the organisation and being a potential ally in dealing with your supervisor. However, if you do not feel secure enough in your job to approach them, or there is no service available, you may want to talk to your GP or a counsellor. You may need time off work; and sickness absence with mental health problems is just as valid as that for any physical health problems.

Making adjustments to how you work

Many of the adjustments that can help with mental health are things you might expect an employer to adopt as a matter of ordinary good practice; some you may be able to organise for yourself; others would require action, or at least agreement, on the part of the employer. The key to negotiation with the employer is to think creatively about what will enable you to do your job effectively. Here are some examples:

  • using voice-mail to take messages (without slowing down the overall response time) if phone calls make you anxious
  • a quiet workspace to avoid distractions and aid concentration, or being able to work from home
  • changing your supervisor, if another would be more flexible
  • restructuring a job or temporarily reallocating some of the duties (for example, ‘front-line’ work)
  • using email when face-to-face contact is too stressful
  • flexible hours to accommodate therapy, medical appointments, rush-hour pressures or the morning drowsiness associated with some medicines
  • on-the-job support, or permission for a support worker to come in or to be contacted during work hours
  • permission to take time out when distressed: this could just be a few minutes away from your workstation, going out for some air, or having a short rest
  • a workstation by a window, or a lightbox, if you have seasonal affective disorder.

You are probably the best judge of what would be most successful for you. If you want to think through some of the possibilities with another person, before negotiating with your employer, or have someone to back up your request, you could speak with someone involved with your care or treatment, a local supported employment organisation, or with a disability employment adviser who are part of Jobcentre Plus. DEAs can give you advice and carry out an employment assessment to find out what assistance you may need. Via the Access to Work scheme, they may be able to help you get funding for changes to premises, equipment, personal support or assistance, or help with extra costs of getting to work.

Should I tell my employer if I have a mental illness?

Some people say you should be open about mental illness. Others advise against it, where there is a choice. Some recommend waiting until the employer has formed an impression of you based on your abilities and character, not on their preconceptions. Some companies have positive policies on disability and equality at work, which ought to mean that being open about your mental health is less of a risk.

An employer only has to make adjustments for needs that they know about. Therefore, if you want the protection of the Equality Act, or simply want your employer to understand your needs, you will have to make sure that someone in a responsible position knows what they are. This could be your manager or the human resources (personnel) department.

If you do decide to tell, think about how and when to do it, how much information you want to give, what kind of information, and who to share it with. For example, the human resources department may know your diagnosis, but they don’t have to tell your supervisor or workmates.

You don’t have to go into personal details; focus on what you need for the job. Employers’ concerns tend to arise out of assumptions about poor work performance. They want to know if you can do the job and will get along with the customers or clients and the rest of the team. If you can show that your objective is to get the job done, this should go a long way to reassuring them. Being straightforward and unembarrassed about your history will help them get it in to perspective.

The potential risks of disclosing something about your mental health history include:

  • not getting the job
  • being teased or harassed by other employees
  • being assumed to be a less productive member of the team
  • having fewer opportunities for career development
  • being treated as more vulnerable than other employees, or having everything (anger, excitement, time off sick, or a grievance) associated with your mental illness
  • coming under closer scrutiny than other employees, and having to work harder to gain the same respect.

The potential benefits of disclosure are:

  • being open about it can encourage others in the same situation
  • keeping it secret may be too stressful, or against your beliefs
  • it gives you a stronger basis for requesting adjustments to your job or work environment
  • it could give you the opportunity to involve an outside adviser or support worker, who could see you at work or speak directly with your employer
  • it could make it easier to go into work at times when your symptoms are greater
  • it enables you to enlist the support of colleagues.