What to Do When a Colleague is in Distress? A Guide for Non-Professionals

Mustafa Šuvalija

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Work, as perhaps the single largest “part” of life (in terms of time and energy we expend on it), is also the biggest individual contributor to stress. Most of our stress comes from, or is compounded by, work.

Similarly, the time we spend working is also the period in which we witness most stressful situations experienced by others. This is why I believe that if workers had the skills to adequately react to signs of stress at work, it would be easier for people dealing with it to bounce back more quickly and address their challenges.

Here, I’ll describe steps that employees who are not mental health professionals can take to support colleagues in distress and help them to find long-term solutions to issues at hand.

Knowing When to Act

The first and most important step in supporting a coworker in distress has nothing to do with specific mental health first aid techniques, but with attitude and awareness. Before you do anything, you have to be able to notice and tell that someone may be in need of support. 

This may not be as easy as it seems. In the initial stages of a crisis situation, a coworker could be sending out unclear or mixed signals about how they feel. They could be in denial or be trying to manage the issue on their own. Stress-related stigma is still present, and people are afraid of appearing weak, unable to put up with the demands of the job (or life in general), or simply don’t want to be perceived as “unstable” or “crazy”. This may move them to cover up how they feel and make it difficult for others to tell that there’s a problem brewing underneath.

But, with time passing by and stress-related problems remaining unresolved, some unmistakable signs of distress (i.e. the state of being overpowered by stress) will become increasingly visible. The most typical of these include:

  • Absenteeism: Absences from work that are more frequent than is typical for that specific person or other people in the company, regardless of the formal reason (sick days, vacations, personal days, etc.).
  • Presenteesim: Reduced productivity and engagement even though the person checks in for work.
  • Withdrawal: Reduced contact or frequency of communication with other people, regardless of the topic of conversation. The person exhibits less enjoyment and engagement in activities that normally have their attention.
  • Mood changes & sensitivity: Heightened sensitivity to normal, everyday challenges manifested in depressed mood, sadness and pessimism.
  • Irritability and anger: Reacting to frustration with anger and, occasionally, aggression.
  • Physical symptoms: Physical changes including weight loss or weight gain, skin changes, appearance of exhaustion or tiredness, aches, sleep disturbances, dizziness, upset stomach, and trembling or shaking.

These symptoms may appear alone or in combination, and at different levels of intensity, with all of that being different from person to person. Therefore, you should not look for a specific set of symptoms in order to justify taking a proactive approach in checking up on others. It should be enough that some of these symptoms appear for a longer period of time than is typical for short-term stress reactions we all occasionally experience.

Knowing What (Not) to Do

Regardless of the causes or intensity of symptoms, reactions of the environment can have a major impact on how effectively the person copes with their issues, but also on how those issues affect their environment. Only an appropriate response will ensure that the action-reaction dynamics between the person in distress and their environment does not create a vicious cycle that creates painful consequences for both.

The main thing to keep in mind here is that no coworker who is not a mental health professional should be expected to provide full mental health support. Not only would an attempt to do so not resolve anything, it could even lead to greater distress. All non-professionals should strive for is to be able to detect signs of distress and react to them in a way that may temporarily ease suffering and motivate their colleagues to seek further help. Non-professionals can only act as stress buffers and conduits for quicker, better problem solving and mental health care. Here’s what they can do when acting in this capacity.

Reach out

When you notice that a colleague is struggling, an opportunity to inquire about their emotional state may present itself spontaneously. If it doesn’t, you should consider starting a conversation on the topic yourself by inviting your coworker for a chat. In both cases, it’s important that the conversation takes place in an environment with minimum risk of interruptions and with maximum privacy. If you decide to take initiative and organize a chat, make sure you don’t do it in an overly formal or dramatic fashion. You want your teammate to relax and open up, which is less likely to happen if they sense tension in the way you approach this conversation.

Listen

When we experience stress-inducing problems, an additional, meta-layer of stress typically follows along, a sort of “stressing about stress”. It’s a stress reaction produced by feelings of being unsure what exactly is the problem we’re facing, fear that we’re the only ones experiencing that problem (and are therefore somehow weird), and finally, confusion about whether there is a solution to it.

Listening is the most important ingredient of supportive conversations exactly because it helps alleviate many of these “meta-concerns”. First, it sends a clear signal to the person you’re listening to that you genuinely care for what they have to say (and, by extension, about how they feel). Second, it allows you as the listener to understand their thoughts and feelings on both a cognitive and an emotional level. The fact that  you can comprehend their struggle validates it and empowers them to see it as manageable (whatever can be understood and defined has limits and can be addressed, at least to an extent).

As far as the “how” of listening is concerned, you should keep in mind that what we don’t do is equally important as how we do it. When it comes to “don’ts”, try not to diagnose or second guess the other person’s feelings, judge their emotions or actions, or offer value-based opinions. The main thing a person in distress needs is compassion and understanding, and shifting focus to your opinions takes away the attention from their feelings. If those opinions are also filled with value judgments, they’ll create a sense that the person is “allowed” to say some things, but not others, which effectively cancels the stress-reducing effects of listening.

On the other hand, a few things you can do to make listening more effective include reflecting and reframing the things your colleague shares with you, to signal that you’re actively following what they’re saying and check whether you’re on track in terms of understanding their point. Also, make sure you ask questions whenever there’s a murky detail that prevents you from connecting the dots. This will not only help you get clarity, but can even help the person presenting the problem understand it better. The thing that you’re asking to be clarified could also be a thing that they haven’t fully thought through.

Finally, keep your questions open-ended; offering answers to your own questions can be perceived as a limitation of the range of “acceptable” answers and therefore implicitly judgemental. Instead of offering insights, predefined answers may cause the person to retreat and filter their responses, which will prevent further meaningful exchange.

Encourage problem-solving and self-care

Provided that you’ve applied the listening recommendations described previously, your effort as a listener should result in a good basic grasp of the issue the other person presented. This sense of understanding where they’re coming from may tempt you to offer a ready-made solution to the problem(s) you believe you’ve spotted. Don’t. 

First, specific solutions should be discussed only in the case when the problem causing the distress is within your area of expertise. Even then, solutions should not be offered out of hand; you shouldn’t assume that what worked for you would necessarily work for your distressed coworker. Rather, inquire about the ways they think the problem could be addressed and offer your opinions on why those solutions may or may not work. Only if some solutions are left unmentioned should you bring them up as options to be considered. Even then, they should not be presented as definitive solutions, but only as one of many options that could be attempted. Taking this approach will help the person preserve their sense of agency, which is crucial in times in which they may be feeling weak and helpless. Also, taking ownership over the problem-solving process may lead to learning and skill development, and thus prevent the stress-inducing problem from recurring in the future.

You should be even more careful not to hand out predefined solutions if the root cause of stress is not something that’s within your expertise. In that case, the best you can do is direct your teammate to a field expert or encourage them to seek one out. You may offer your assistance in finding more information about available resources, but it shouldn’t go further than that. This rule applies to all problems outside one’s area of expertise, but particularly for problems where poor mental health is the root cause, rather than a consequence of problems. As mentioned before, that doesn’t lead anywhere and only runs the risk of worsening the person’s condition.

Key Takeaways

Instead of a conclusion, I leave you with a summarized list of points about how to help a distressed colleague get back on their feet.

To support teammates in distress, it’s important to:

  • Know when to act
  • Know what not to do
  • Reach out
  • Listen 
  • Encourage problem-solving and self-care

It seems simple enough; let’s put it in practice and make the workplace less of a stress generator and more of a tool for bouncing back and recovery.

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