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How To Be Helpful To A Coworker Dealing With A Mental Health Challenge

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 28, 2021

“Can you imagine doing this for a living at this point in what’s happening in the world,” comedian Jessica Kirson says to a couple in a recent crowd work clip she posted on her Instagram account, “to have to make people laugh – it’s so much harder now cause everyone is so down and filled with fear. So I’m starting from zero. You know what I mean? Before people had hope. Where’d you guys meet?”

She’s not wrong. Depression, anxiety, fear, stress, and loneliness – to name a few – took center stage in 2020, and have continued into 2021. There’s a good chance we will still be feeling the impact of these struggles for quite a while; trauma, anxiety, depression, stress, anger, sadness, loneliness, and all the other funky emotional and social consequences we have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience, don’t abide by a prescripted timeline. 

An upside to be found in all of this is it has started to normalize mental health issues. We now collectively realize how easy it is to feel all the stuff that makes day-to-day life…harder. These are symptoms that millions of people around the world deal with on a daily basis, sometimes cripplingly so, and oftentimes don’t have anywhere to go for support. 

It can be extremely isolating to be at work while privately dealing with a mental health issue, afraid of being found out, but desperately wanting support. By the same token, it can be uncomfortable, awkward and confusing trying to navigate how to help or support someone who is struggling, even if every molecule in our body wants to help.

So although there is a lot out there on this topic, there can never be enough. We can all use some reminders from time to time on how to be an ally to our colleagues who may be struggling. Where to begin?

Signs That A Coworker / Employee Might Need Support

First and foremost, recognize the signs. A good rule of thumb is that if you notice a sudden change in behavior or a departure from someone’s usual demeanor on more days than not, that could be an indication that something is up. Some common changes in behavior may include: 

  • Missed deadlines
  • Slow pace of work
  • Absences or lateness
  • Outbursts or impatience
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Withdrawal
  • Forgetting
  • Under or overperforming

While not a complete list, it gives a general sense of what to look for. 

Another sign to pay attention to is major life events (e.g., divorce, separation, death of a loved one, job loss or change, illness, etc.),  Although it may not trigger a mental health problem, it can impact someone and they may need additional support.

How To Support A Coworker / Employee

If you want to lend some support to a coworker that you think might be experiencing a mental health issue or is going through a major life event, the most important thing is to lead with empathy. 

Check your ego at the door and make sure you have the time and patience to truly listen and understand what this person is going through. To start, stick with these seem-really-easy-but-actually-aren’t-that-easy-to-put-in-action tips to help you support others: 

Listen. The best thing you can do is to simply listen; give them a chance to talk. Create the space for a conversation to happen, without problem solving. Giving advice fulfills our own need to “do something” but it’s not necessarily appropriate. Listening, which is often harder than giving advice, is the kindest thing you can do. Don’t force them to talk. Just allow for it to happen when they are ready.

Stick with observations versus an armchair diagnosis. Since you are most likely not a therapist, it’s best not to act like one. This can come off condescending and you will be out of your depth should they actually start to see you as one. 

When you relay what you’ve observed about them, keep the observations rooted to their work, not their mental health. For instance, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t been as talkative lately in meetings” versus “You seem depressed.”

Make sure you keep boundaries. One of the consequences of being supportive is you can become a de facto therapist and that is not your job. If you feel they are leaning on you in that way, that would be the time to encourage them – or help them – find support.

Never say “You’ll be okay” or “You’re fine” or “Cheer up.” This is like telling someone to calm down when they are feeling overwhelmed or scared. Plus, this isn’t listening; that’s an impatient, dismissive response (but one we all find ourselves doing from time to time).

If the person is already feeling isolated, telling them “You’re fine” can make it feel worse. Ask questions, and ask how you can help. If they can’t identify how, just be kind and supportive. If you have the bandwidth, you can offer to lighten their workload or help with errands or other tasks.

Empathize without hijacking the conversation. Although it is sometimes tempting to empathize by sharing your own struggles or experiences, redirecting the conversation to yourself can potentially shut the conversation down. Try to be mindful that you don’t hijack the conversation by sharing your own experiences at the expense of listening to what your colleague is saying about their own.

Don’t take it personally. Supporting someone with mental health struggles can be a very difficult road and sometimes a thankless act. However, know that your support and compassion can be the difference someone needs to help themselves. 

Offer to help them find professional help. If you feel your colleague is open to getting help, one of the best things you can do to help (if you have the bandwidth) is to help them find help. Just going through the process of finding professional help can often be a deterrent to getting professional help. 

If you want to go the extra mile, you can educate yourself about mental illness. At some point in our lives, we will all know someone who struggles with it, whether that be our own personal struggle, a colleague, a family member or a friend that we love. Knowing a bit about mental health and wellness can go a long way in helping you not only with your own wellness but in your ability to help others.  

Trust your gut. If you get the sense that something very serious is going on and you are concerned about their safety, talk to your manager or talk with HR. Although it may feel like a betrayal of trust, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to significant mental health concerns. 

Struggling with a mental health issue is very lonely. Just feeling heard and supported can make all the difference in the world. As allies, even small acts of kindness like a smile, buying a cup of coffee, or a brief “how are you” check-in (where you take the time to listen to the response) can go a long way in creating a supportive, emotionally safe atmosphere. 

The most important thing is to be compassionate. The more we all try to create a safe, healthy space to open up, the more likely we will find ourselves inhabiting one.


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