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How to Help a Struggling Coworker

A woman working on her laptop converses with a man seated opposite her, holding his phone.

Your coworker’s difficulties in their personal life can impact many daily activities, including their work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the effects of poor mental health in the workplace can include low productivity, poor communication with coworkers, disengagement, and poor overall job performance. The CDC notes that depression can interfere with a person’s ability to complete physical tasks 20% of the time and reduces their cognitive performance 35% of the time.

Coworkers often have close relationships with one another. They may see each other and communicate regularly during the workday. Thus, coworkers can be instrumental in supporting colleagues who are experiencing difficulties. Here are 5 ways you can help a coworker who is struggling with a personal issue.

Understand the signs of distress

A study by Olivet Nazarene University found that 22% of coworkers spend between 30 and 60 minutes per workday talking about personal issues unrelated to work, and 18% spend more than an hour. During these interactions, there’s a good chance you’ll become aware of problems that your colleagues are dealing with. So be on the lookout for noticeable signs of distress.

A few common signs of distress include:

  • Changes in performance
  • Talking about sadness or hopelessness
  • A shift in personal hygiene
  • Showing symptoms substance use
  • Acting lethargic
  • Having an apathetic attitude
  • For example, you may notice that a coworker suddenly has a drop in workplace performance and shows symptoms of a substance use disorder. This would be a red flag that the person needs help. More than 70% of employees with substance use disorders are “functioning.” In other words, they remain employed while they are using. Therefore, you may need to read between the lines to identify a major issue. Pay close attention to their behavior to spot signs of distress.

    Listen

    There’s often a significant amount of trust and rapport between coworkers. You go through the trenches with one another — something that can build deep connections. Having this type of relationship naturally puts you in a position where a coworker could feel comfortable sharing their personal issues with you. One study found that 61% of workers reported that the support they’ve received from colleagues has helped them through difficult stretches in their lives. So it’s important to let coworkers know that you are there to listen to their problems or troubles. Knowing that you are someone they can turn to in a time of crisis is incredibly helpful and can lead to them opening up.

    To truly be of value, practice active listening. Active listening is the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond thoughtfully. This differs from passive listening, where you simply hear what they’re saying without actually retaining the message. In other words, be attentive and listen deeply. Don’t just wait to talk or respond. Active listening is essential—not only for getting the full story, but also for making people comfortable as they confide in you.

    Validate their emotions

    As you listen, validate the person’s emotions. Let them know that you genuinely acknowledge their problem and want to provide sympathetic support. Don’t trivialize or dismiss their issues. Instead, do your best to put yourself in their shoes and understand what they’re going through. You may not always be able to relate to their exact issue. But acting in a caring and encouraging manner should help the person feel validated and open up about their experience.

    Don’t give unwanted advice

    It’s natural to want to give advice to a struggling coworker, especially when you feel that you can point them in a more positive direction. In many cases, offering advice can be helpful. But give advice only if the person asks for it. Giving unwanted advice and being a “know-it-all” can do more harm than good. It may make someone feel worse. It can also diminish the trust you’ve established and make them reluctant to confide in you in the future.

    To avoid giving unwanted advice, simply ask your coworker if they want advice or if they just need to vent when discussing their issues. If they were just looking for someone to talk to and not yet ready for this step, don’t press the issue. Instead, just let them know that they can come to you if they change their mind. Don’t be pushy. Offer advice only if the person is receptive to it.

    Know when to reach out

    There’s a lot you can do on your own to support colleagues in the workplace. But even the best of friends/coworkers may find that a situation is too much to handle without additional support. So it’s important to know when an issue is bigger than you can handle. When that is the case, reach out to the appropriate party.

    If you feel that a coworker’s mental health issues are seriously impacting the company you both work for, you may want to reach out to a manager or your HR department. If your coworker’s substance use disorder is posing a threat to safety, for them or for others, you may want to seek professional help and get in touch with a rehabilitation center for guidance.

    Use your best judgment here. Try not to interfere in your colleague’s personal life if you can help it. But be aware when an issue hits a tipping point, seeking outside help is necessary. When this happens, reach out to someone who you feel can help. Explain the situation, so they can take the best course of action.

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