When A Colleague Seems Down

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John typically comes to the office in a good mood, and usually chats with his co-workers before getting his morning coffee. However, the last few days he just hasn’t seemed himself. He’s been withdrawn and quiet, barely speaking to anyone. You have a good working relationship with John and sit in the cubicle next to him. Do you say something or just give John his space?

Full-time employees often spend more waking hours with their co-workers than their own families. So it’s no surprise that co-workers are sometimes the first to recognize when someone is showing signs of emotional distress. When that happens, how should a co-worker respond? What should a colleague say or not say? When should a manager get involved?

Toni Agbaniyaka, Bsc, Ma, MBACP Qualified Counselor

Toni Agbaniyaka, Bsc, Ma, MBACP Qualified Counselor, is an EAP counselor based in Workplace Options’ United Kingdom office. She shares several suggestions below related to supporting co-workers who may be struggling emotionally.

Recognize symptoms of emotional distress

As a first step, Toni suggests employees become familiar with the signs of emotional distress. Sadness or withdrawing is commonly associated with emotional distress, but angry outbursts and irritability are symptoms as well. Other symptoms a colleague might observe include:

  • Becoming quieter than usual
  • Absent from work
  • Neglecting personal care
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of interest in things or activities they once found enjoyable
  • A lack of energy or motivation
  • Expressing feeling down, sad or depressed
  • Extreme reactions that are out of proportion
  • Difficulty concentrating, missing deadlines
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or other substances
  • Expressing thoughts of harming oneself

Offer support to co-workers struggling emotionally

If you have a good working relationship with a co-worker in distress, don’t be afraid to reach out and show support. For example, if your colleague is grieving the loss of a parent, it is appropriate to offer your condolences by saying, “I’m sorry about your loss. I’m available if you just want to talk.”

If you don’t know the cause of the distress, but can tell that something is wrong you can still offer support by saying something along the lines of, “I can tell you aren’t yourself. Is there something I can do to be of help?”

Other ways to show support:

  • Listen if they want to talk. Don’t respond with solutions. Only provide suggestions if they specifically ask for advice.
  • Let them know their feelings are normal given the situation. Let them know “it is okay not to be okay.”
  • Encourage them to let someone know if they need professional help. Remind them of confidential resources available through HR or your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Think before you speak

Even well-intentioned people are capable of saying the wrong thing to someone in distress. Think before you speak and avoid the following responses:

  • Do not say things that make your co-worker feel stupid or judged for being in a vulnerable place.
  • Do not minimize their feelings by using expressions like “that’s nothing” or “I’ve been through worse.”
  • Avoid engaging with them in activities that could affect their health, including excessive drinking or using other substances.
  • Do not try and diagnose your colleague.
  • Do not make assumptions or force your colleague to disclose personal details.

Know when to involve others

If a co-worker makes statements that make you feel that he or she is at risk of harming themselves or others, it is important to alert a member of management or HR. Comments like, “’No one loves me…nobody care about me” or “I’m a waste of space” should be taken seriously, even if said in a joking manner. It’s also appropriate to notify a manager or member of HR if your colleague’s behavior is affecting your ability to work.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit www.workplaceoptions.com.