How To Reach Out To A Colleague Who's Stressed Out At Work

If a colleague seems overwhelmed or stressed with work, how should you help?

Helping an overwhelmed colleague begins even before the first signs of trouble appear, by putting yourself in a position to sincerely offer help without making him feel guilty or belittled.

This means proactively building good relationships with colleagues, fostering a supportive workplace where help is openly offered and received, said Associate Professor Timothy Sim of the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

“One would decline help, especially not knowing what the ‘help’ is about, especially who the helper is and what the implication or repercussions are of seeking help,” said Prof Sim, who heads SUSS’ Master of Counselling programme.

Even if the working relationship is more cordial, a foolproof way to help someone without offending, belittling or misunderstanding him is to first simply acknowledge how he is feeling and express empathy for his situation.

“This requires one to refrain from offering solutions, explanations, or worse, passing judgment,” said Mr Chirag Agarwal, co-founder of counselling platform Talk Your Heart Out.

Mr Agarwal said that it is often a confluence of both personal and work-related issues coming together that could cause a person to feel overwhelmed.

In other instances, underlying issues may slowly pile up, so the colleague may not even be aware that he is not coping well, he added.

Worries about workplace processes, one’s skills and knowledge, and office dynamics may underpin these feelings, Prof Sim noted.

Other factors include personal or family problems, mental health issues, or even a combination of different issues.

If your colleague is willing to share his situation, offer him a listening ear first, only generating options and alternatives afterwards if you feel comfortable, Prof Sim said.

Overall, help should be offered gently, patiently, and always with the person’s permission, said Mr Agarwal.

“This would help preserve their confidence and show respect for their situation. You also come across as a reliable friend and colleague with an open offer to help.

“This would make them feel more comfortable about approaching you, whenever they are ready.”

If the support required goes beyond providing a listening ear or sharing the workload on a particularly difficult day or week, employees should consider referring their colleague to the company’s employee assistance programme so that he can get help from a therapist, said Mr Agarwal.

However, employees should be cautious about seeking out managers’ help on their colleague’s behalf, both experts noted.

“Out of respect and privacy concerns, the employee should always be consulted beforehand,” said Prof Sim.

He also advised employees to find out if their company has any policies or procedures on employee well-being that they could follow, including on when to get a manager involved.

“If the issue is related to the work or workload, perhaps seeking out managers is a good idea, but only after getting the person’s permission,” said Mr Agarwal.

“One never knows the full set of circumstances in a situation and considerations for someone else’s decision, so we should always respect a colleague’s decision to raise or not raise an issue.

“Instead, your support and encouragement itself will eventually give them the confidence to raise it to their supervisors, whenever they feel prepared and are ready to have that conversation.”

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.