Being a caregiver for a loved one is stressful, and when you have to show up at the office on a daily basis, focusing on your work and maintaining a positive attitude can be challenging. Research shows that one in six employed Americans also act as caregivers for an aging or ill family member, and if you work with someone who is carrying a burden at home, it can seem challenging to show your support for them without overstepping.
“There are two main areas to consider when trying to support your colleagues,” Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at the University of the South, tells Thrive. “The first is the workplace environment itself, and the second is more about work relationships.” Hamby explains that people who are providing care for someone often feel like they have a “second shift” at home, and helping them begins with getting a better understanding of the burden they’re carrying. “First, you can educate yourself about family leave, teleworking, and related policies at your workplace,” she suggests. “The next step is providing tangible support.”
Support comes in different forms depending on the individual colleague, and what your relationship looks like, Hamny notes — but there are overarching ways to provide encouragement in a way that’s compassionate and empathetic. Here are a few that can help.
Help them set boundaries
We talk a lot about the importance of leaving work at work, but for caregivers, setting these kinds of boundaries is essential to their well-being, both at work and at home. “People who are going home to a ‘second shift’ of caregiving need to be able to carve some reasonable boundaries around their work,” Hamby says. “Tangible support can still be important here, such as bringing people food or offering to pick up their kids from school.” You don’t have to put your own life on hold to help them out, but Hamby says offering a hand even in small ways can make your colleague’s life less stressful.
Remind them of the impact they’re making
It’s important for caregivers to “find their why” by identifying what motivates them to be doing what they’re doing, Hamby says. You can help validate the effort they’re exerting at home. “Helping your colleagues get in touch with their motivations, or affirming that you see what they are doing for their family can be a huge gift,” Hamby notes. “Let them know that you appreciate the love they are showing for their family members, or that you are impressed by their strength and commitment.”
Invite them to take a stress-free break
Sometimes the most helpful way to be there for someone is to simply be there, and that’s when it helps to help take their mind off of their high-stress situation. “Offer to listen to them,” Roni Beth Tower, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Thrive. “Ask them if they want to talk, and if so, arrange a quiet time to ask them how they’re doing, whether that’s on a lunch break, or a walk around the block.” Tower agrees that showing verbal motivation is crucial, but oftentimes, a colleague who is feeling pressure at home can benefit from not talking about the situation as well. If they are not interested in talking at the moment, reassure them that you are available if they change their mind, she adds. “Be available, but not intrusive.”
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