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What if we were trained to help each other?

06 March 2020 - By Sarah Taylor

Our friend Tony Southall died on 9 September 2019. He took his own life. I say ‘our’ friend because there were hundreds of us at his funeral, and hundreds more in our legal whanau who were deeply saddened by his death.

I interviewed Tony for this series (LawTalk 925, February 2019) and we met up several times, usually over a glass of wine, to talk about what more could be done to support lawyers and create more mentally-healthy workplaces. Tony was very keen on the idea of a ‘go-to’ organisation for lawyers to turn to in times of mental distress. He was adamant that such a body needed to be independent of the Law Society so that we could open up about our issues on a confidential basis without fear of stigmatisation or regulatory consequences.

The idea of such a body or programme – one that stretches across a profession or sector, rather than being housed within an individual workplace – is not new, but there is nothing currently within the New Zealand legal profession of this nature. We can learn from other countries and industries.

In this article, I explore one such programme: PAN NZ – the Peer Assistance Network established within the New Zealand aviation industry to support pilots and air traffic controllers. In a future article I’ll be writing about Farmstrong – a nationwide wellbeing programme that supports the farming community.

What is PAN NZ?

PAN NZ is a collegial mental health support programme for the aviation industry. It is made up of a voluntary group of pilots and air traffic controllers who have been trained in the fields of occupational psychology, stress response, substance abuse, performance failure, relationship resolution and suicide. These “volunteer peer workers” are available 24/7, on a confidential basis, to support fellow pilots and air traffic controllers in times of need.

I found out about PAN NZ from Herwin Bongers, an airline pilot, who contacted me and the Law Society after reading Tony’s obituary in the Dominion Post.

“The similarities with Tony calling for a go-to organisation for lawyers suffering mental distress and what we’ve achieved for the New Zealand aviation industry is striking,” said Herwin. “We’ve learned that the power of collegial connective empathy has an overwhelming effect on establishing the trust quotient so important in building an effective professional support network.”

Herwin kindly offered to share his lessons from the PAN NZ programme with me.

Why was PAN NZ established?

Pilots and air traffic controllers need to operate at peak performance but, like us, they’re human and vulnerable to mental health issues. “In the past, pilots and air traffic controllers held grave concerns about seeking help for mental health issues,” said Herwin. “The shame and fear of losing our medical certificates – and our very means to earn a living – drove many to avoid seeking help. It was considered a career-ending move.”

After a number of suicides in the industry, it became apparent that the standard programme for help and support wasn’t working. “Our biggest obstacle was the reluctance to reach out when personal or professional issues became overwhelming,” said Herwin. “The predominant attitude was to bury and hide the problem. Mental health issues went untreated.”

Herwin and his peers wanted to establish an effective support programme that was independent of the regulator and trusted by those who needed it. Qantas had a well-established model of peer support network for pilots, but Herwin and his colleagues wanted to develop a programme that stretched across companies and extended to air traffic controllers. PAN NZ was established in 2014.

How is PAN NZ different from EAP?

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is a counselling service often provided by employer organisations for employees who need help with work or personal problems that may be affecting their wellbeing or ability to work. I’ve talked to several people who have used EAP, myself included, and the common themes seem to be: “It can be great, or awful, depending on who you get”. And: “I’m sure they’re good counsellors but they just don’t ‘get it’. They don’t understand what it’s like to have a busy practice/tight deadlines/demanding clients/challenging budgets ...”

The key difference between EAP and PAN NZ is in talking to someone who shares the same or similar job, has similar lived experience, and who can genuinely empathise. Like EAP, PAN NZ is a confidential service and while they’re not professional counsellors, PAN volunteers are all well-trained to support those who contact them.

What if you could talk to a trained peer who ‘gets it’? Lawyers could talk to lawyers, legal executives could talk to legal executives, legal support crew could talk to fellow legal support heroes.

Herwin says that research confirms that talking to a peer as a first point of contact, rather than talking to someone outside the profession or industry, is much more effective in helping people.

But these people aren’t trained counsellors

PAN NZ is upfront about this – the volunteers are not trained counsellors or psychiatrists. “But,” says Herwin, “they’re all well-trained to know the limits of the assistance they can provide and, most importantly, they know when a referral to a health professional is needed.”

Not everyone who volunteers is chosen to be part of the support group. Each person goes through an interview and selection process before proceeding to training. “Not everyone is suitable,” said Herwin. “Those who are selected have been shown to possess the right level of capability, empathy, and discretion to be able to help.”

Is PAN NZ helping?

Herwin says that in a few years, PAN NZ has changed the attitudinal narrative surrounding mental health in aviation – from one of secrecy and fear, to one of trust and support. “Not only do pilots and air traffic controllers have a portal to seek refuge in a time of turmoil, but aviation workplaces across the whole country gain from safety improvements,” said Herwin. “And every passenger who entrusts their lives to us when they fly gains from a safer aviation industry.”

The PAN NZ assistance line is contacted with new cases about three times a week. Herwin indicated that the issues are about anything and everything – people struggling with extra training at work, job changes, marital break-ups, and finances.

At the time of writing, there are 45 volunteers across New Zealand – made up of airline and helicopter pilots, and air traffic controllers – supporting about 3,500 of their peers. A volunteer handles no more than three cases at a time. “PAN NZ has reduced stigma, flipped the narrative, and improved self-awareness,” said Herwin. “It is now known that asking for help doesn’t curtail your career.”

Workplace programmes

While PAN NZ spans an industry, several organisations have implemented their own peer support programmes. One example is Vodafone NZ’s Manaaki Support Network which was launched in mid-2018.

Like PAN NZ, Vodafone’s Manaaki Support Network relies on a crew of volunteer employees who have been selected after a robust interview process and trained, as a collective, to support their colleagues. There are currently 18 volunteers providing easy-to-access, confidential, and meaningful support to about 1,800 of their peers. Volunteers are selected mainly on the strength of their empathy and compassion for others and they, in turn, are well-supported with fortnightly catch-ups and professional supervision and support when needed. It is early days, but engagement levels indicate that the programme is having a meaningful impact.

What are the key to success?

In relation to PAN NZ, Herwin says there are three key pillars for success, and all involve trust:

Trust of the worker group: “This of absolute inviolate importance,” said Herwin. “It is achieved by structuring the programme as independent and with strict adherence to confidentiality protocols.” Herwin also said that getting endorsement from relevant worker representative groups or unions is vital.

Trust of the management: “The programme can’t be viewed as a means for workers to hide from proper clinical help or responsibilities,” said Herwin. He emphasises the importance of codified escalation protocols which the volunteers are trained in and having a steering committee which provides oversight and support.

Trust of the health profession: Professional training is seen as an essential and ongoing investment. To avoid the risk of volunteers delivering “help” which could clinically worsen a situation, workers are trained to a very high standard and, if needed, individuals are guided towards health professionals.

“The collaboration between the profession, the industry, the regulator, and the medical fraternity has seen us breach many of the earlier barriers,” said Herwin. “Conversations about mental illness and distress are now normalised.”

How is PAN NZ funded?

Companies across the New Zealand aviation industry can sign up and pay a capped subscription fee, based on employee numbers, that enables their pilots and air traffic contollers to access the programme. PAN NZ operates on a relatively modest budget (less than $100,000 p/a) which primarily pays for volunteer training and a psychologist who provides supervision for the programme, ongoing training, and professional support for referrals.

PAN NZ is working to sign up additional companies to the programme, particularly small or single-person owner/operators, and in the future they’d like the programme to extend to others working in the industry.

What pitfalls should be avoided?

Herwin emphasises that the structure of any programme must be properly formed from the outset and that confidentiality and trust are critical. “Get it wrong, and the results of badly handled cases will cause certain failure, no matter how well intentioned a peer programme is,” said Herwin.

Could such a programme work across other sectors?

Herwin is clear on this: “Why not?” he said.

Could a peer support programme work within the legal profession?

What do you think? Tell me: sarah.taylor@lodlaw.com

Thank you to Herwin Bongers for sharing lessons about PAN NZ, and to Tuihana Ohia and Angela Simmons for information about Vodafone NZ’s Manaaki Support Network. You’re all doing wonderful things.


Sarah Taylor sarah.taylor@lodlaw.com is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah at the email address above.

The Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture is currently trialling a free confidential professional counselling service, through Vitae, for anyone working in a legal workplace. The service is available 24/7. To utilise the service, free call Vitae on 0508 664 981 (mention that you’re accessing the “Legal Community Counselling Service”) or fill out a referral form on the Law Society’s website.

Last updated on the 6th March 2020