Helping troubled co-workers

Learn how to help co-workers who are struggling with mental health issues. The following steps can help you intervene while protecting your own well-being.

Share on.articles

Many forward-looking employers are establishing policies and procedures that promote a psychologically healthy work environment. They’re responding to an emerging legal duty to provide and maintain a psychologically safe workplace. However, co-workers are often the first to recognize and respond to individuals whose mental health may be at risk. 

Co-workers often ask questions such as:

“I have a co-worker who seems increasingly unsettled each day. They often look tired, upset and distracted. When I asked a manager about this, they said the employee is still getting their work done, so it’s not a problem. I’m worried and wonder what I should say or do.”

The manager is saying it’s not a performance problem. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned for your co-worker’s well-being. While there could be many explanations for the changes you see, early intervention can reduce the chances their current problem will become chronic or escalate.

While it’s not your responsibility to deal with anyone else’s health issues, if you want to reach out or be supportive, it’s helpful to know that each situation is unique. Consider the following to determine when it’s appropriate to reach out.

Exploring the situation

Mention to your co-worker that they don’t seem to be themselves lately. Be specific when you tell them what you see: “You don’t look as well as you usually do. You seem upset and distracted. Are you feeling okay?”

Resist making judgments or drawing conclusions about what’s going on. Instead, invite your co-worker to talk about what they’re experiencing. When they finish speaking, repeat what you heard and ask them if it’s correct. Resist giving them advice about what to do. Instead, continue listening and ask what you can do to help. 

There are two reasons for this approach:

  1. You avoid giving incorrect or unwanted advice – both of which could have unintended consequences.
  2. You can help your co-worker focus on what they need. When we’re consumed by negative or fearful thoughts, we can lose sight of what we need to move beyond them. 

Check out our Supportive conversation library for more tips and strategies.

Encouraging action – when your co-worker is ready for change

  • Try to help your co-worker preserve workplace relationships and their reputation at work. This can include helping them avoid unnecessary conflict or acting out when they’re not well. Resolving personal conflict has tips and strategies to help. 
  • Encourage your co-worker to take their work breaks to go for a walk or step outside for some fresh air. Additional ideas are included in the audio clips in Manage anxious or depressive thoughts. These changes in focus and physical movement can help increase their concentration.
  • Help your co-worker focus on one small step forward at a time. Trying to “fix” everything at once can be overwhelming. Subscribing to the work-life balance tips can give them weekly ideas.
  • If your co-worker is overwhelmed with work, encourage them to write down all their tasks. If this seems overwhelming to them, consider offering to help complete the list. Encourage them to take the list to their manager to help them prioritize the most important tasks. Using the Workload reflection and discussion tool | PDF could help.
  • Help your co-worker focus on solutions rather than problems. If they’re worried or upset about something or someone, ask them what they’d like to do about the situation. If they’re unsure, offer some ideas – make sure they choose their own path forward. Supporting employee success is a tool that you or someone else could use to help them do this. 
  • If your co-worker is having trouble at work, look at the list of accommodation strategies. There are suggestions to help with concentration, stamina, workplace relationships and more.

Seeking additional support

  • Look through your benefits plan to see what services are covered. Acupuncture, massage therapy, psychological services and other supports may help.
  • Suggest your co-worker speak to a health care professional. This could be an employee health resource or their family physician.
  • Based on what they say about their experience, look up resources in the community, online and at the workplace. Share what you find with them and ask if they need anything further.
  • If your co-worker isn’t sure what they’re experiencing, suggest they look at Mental health awareness videos. Some approaches or situations described there may be helpful.
  • If your co-worker is concerned they may be experiencing more than just stress, have them take the Check Up From the Neck Up quiz online and bring the results to their family doctor.
  • If your co-worker is having personal or financial issues, direct them to your workplace’s Employee Assistance Program or other community resources you’re familiar with that help with these situations. Managing stress has many resources to help.

Looking after yourself at the same time

  • Remember, you aren’t a therapist. Refer your co-worker to appropriate resources and continue to be there for support, but don’t allow your days to become filled with discussion about their problems.
  • Help your co-worker focus on solutions for their workplace issues. It’s honourable that you want to help your co-worker. At the same time, remember to protect your own stress tolerance. 

Share this webpage with anyone who wants to be supportive to their coworkers.

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

Related articles.articles

Article tags.articles

Choose an option to filter.articles


To add a comment.comments