Helping troubled co-workers

Learn how to help co-workers who’re struggling with mental health issues. Steps are provided to help you intervene while protecting your own well-being.

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Many forward-looking employers are establishing policies and procedures that promote a mentally healthy work environment in response 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 and upset, as well as distracted. When I asked, the manager said they’re 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, but you may be right to have concerns for your co-worker’s well-being. While there could be many explanations for the changes you see, early intervention can reduce the chances that their current problem will become chronic or escalate.

It’s not your responsibility to deal with anyone else’s health issues. However, if you’re someone who wants to reach out or be supportive, know that each situation comes with unique elements. What follows are some possible options for you to consider where the circumstances are appropriate.

Exploring the situation

Tell your co-worker they don’t seem to be themselves lately, and specifically state what you see: “You don’t look as well as you usually do. You seem upset and distracted. Are you feeling okay?”

Resist making any judgments or conclusions about what’s going on. Instead, invite your co-worker to talk about what they’re experiencing. When they’re done, repeat what you heard and ask them if that’s correct. Resist giving them advice about what to do. Instead, continue to listen and ask what you can do to help. There are two reasons for this approach.

The first is that you avoid giving the wrong or unwanted advice – both of which could have unintended consequences. The second is that you’re able to help your co-worker focus on what they need. When any of us are 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.
  • Encourage your co-worker to take their work breaks to go for a walk or out for fresh air. These changes in focus and physical movement can ultimately help them increase their concentration at work.
  • Help your co-worker focus on one small step forward at a time. Trying to “fix” everything at once can be overwhelming.
  • If your co-worker is overwhelmed with work, encourage them to write down all of 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.
  • Help your co-worker focus on solutions rather than problems. If they’re worried or upset about something or someone, ask what they would like to do about the situation. If they’re unsure, offer some ideas, but make sure they choose their own path forward.
  • If your co-worker is having trouble at work, look at the list of accommodation strategies and see if the suggestions for helping with concentration, stamina, workplace relationships, etc. may be useful.

Seeking additional support

  • Look through your benefits plan to see if there are any helpful services,  such as acupuncture, massage therapy, psychological services, etc.
  • Suggest that your co-worker speak to a health care professional – such as an employee health resource or their family physician.
  • Based on what they say they’re experiencing, look up resources in the community, online and at the workplace. Share these with them and ask if they need anything further.
  • If your co-worker isn’t sure what they’re experiencing, have them look at Mental health awareness videos to see if any of the approaches or situations described there are helpful.
  • If your co-worker is concerned that it may be more than stress, have them take the Check Up From the Neck Up quiz online and take the results to their family doctor.
  • If your co-worker is having personal or financial issues, direct them to your Employee Assistance Program or other community resources that help with these situations.

Looking after yourself at the same time

  • Remember, you aren’t a therapist. Refer your co-worker to appropriate resources and just continue to there for support. Don’t allow your days to become filled with discussion about problems.
  • Help your co-worker focus on solutions for the workplace issues. It’s honourable that you want to help your co-worker. Remember, however, to protect your own health and well-being at the same time.

Adapted with permission from source: Baynton, M. (2011) Resolving Workplace Issues. Waterdown, Ontario: Self-published.

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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