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How to support a colleague in distress

Things to do and things to avoid to offer emotional help at the workplace

It does not matter if it is a peer, your boss or a direct report, we all go through challenging times once in a while and it can really make a difference if you are prepared to offer the most helpful reaction to a colleague showing distress. It is solidly shown by psychological research that one of the key protective factors for personal resilience is human connection, and it takes very little to make someone feel better just by showing that you care.

Especially during these times of physical isolation, making an extra effort to foster human connection has never been more crucial for the collective wellbeing.

Here some simple things you can do:

1. ASK IF THEY ARE OK

Find the opportunity to talk to them privately, invite them for a break or a virtual coffee together. Even if they don’t feel like talking to you about how they feel right now, in the case they change their mind they will know they can approach you and you are willing to listen.

2. LISTEN WITH EMPATHY AND WITHOUT JUDGEMENT

Remember that you are not supposed to solve your colleague’s problems, and it is not your responsibility to offer solutions, so refrain from interrupting them to offer advice / personal opinions, even if you are doing it in good faith. Do not compare your situation to theirs, because we are all dealing with the current circumstances differently, and we all have a different emotional baggage with us. Just be there for them.

3. ASK THEM IF THERE IS ANYTHING YOU CAN DO

Another way to let them know they are not alone, while still leaving it up to them if they want to ask you for additional support. If you feel that the matter is particularly serious, you may want to speak to HR for advice, and ask your colleague if they have thought about getting professional help.

If the source of distress is work-related, and the colleague is a direct report, you are very likely to be in the position to actually help solving the problem by coaching, reviewing workload and deadlines, clarifying expectations, offering training, facilitating conversations to address eventual conflict.

3 THINGS YOU SHOULD AVOID SAYING

Just try to relax” – Surely they would love to be able to relax and hearing this (unhelpful) advice will only increase the frustration.

It cannot be that bad” / “It could be worse” / “There are bigger problems” / “You are overreacting“- You’d be expressing judgement which is not the most helpful thing to do (see point 2 above): this is the best way to simply dismiss someone’s feelings and emotional state and discourage them to talk about it. Even if you do not understand why they feel the way they feel, remember that we are all different, with our own backgrounds, circumstances, experiences and vulnerabilities.

It will be ok” – Even if you hope and wish so, in all honesty you cannot be sure, you probably aren’t aware of the full situation in details.

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