How to Help a Colleague Who is Having a Hard Time

When someone is struggling with their mental wellbeing, we all want to help. When that person is a work colleague, however, it can pose another challenge to an already difficult situation. Here, we look at some of the ways you can help a workmate through a tough time.

Our relationship with our work colleagues is a funny one. On one hand, we spend upwards of eight hours a day (typically) sitting with them, talking about what did last night, what we’re going to do tonight and what we have for lunch. Some of us might even go for a glass of the house white or a pint at the pub around the corner with them as we welcome the end of another work week. And on the other hand, for many of us, once we’re out of the office, our work colleagues won’t come to mind. Our interactions are strictly confined to office hours.

Our relationship with mental health isn’t such a funny thing. In fact, it can be really hard to think about, to talk about, or to do anything about, really. And it can be even harder dealing with it in the workplace, whether you work on a building site, hospital ward or the corner office.

Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to spot when a colleague is having a hard time, and other times, the signs are more subtle – absent-minded about deadlines, withdrawn in meetings, more confrontational with other members of the team, skipped lunches, extended bathroom breaks…

It can feel daunting to approach the subject of mental health at the best of times, so bringing it up with a work colleague can feel especially daunting or uncomfortable. You want to help them how you can, but you don’t want to overstep professional and personal boundaries.

The first step in dealing with a colleague’s mental wellbeing is to determine if your relationship allows for you to bring it up. If you have a familiar relationship with a co-worker, it’s likely that you can approach the conversation and it will be well-received. They might even be grateful that you initiated a conversation that allowed them to talk about what’s going on

If, however, the person is senior to you or you don’t have that working friendship, you may wish to consider discussing the issue with a member of management, who can deal with it in a more peer-to-peer capacity.

We asked Natasha Devon MBE, co-founder of our Where’s Your Head At campaign, for her top tips on how to have a potentially difficult mental health conversation at work:

Change the environment.
If you can, get out of the office to have your talk. Finding a coffee shop or local park to walk around can help relax the situation, and make your colleague feel in a better position to open up. There’s also evidence that should-to-should communication (like walking next to each other) is better than face-to-face conversations, which can be felt as more intense and scrutinising. Changing the environment and doing an activity (like getting coffee) also means that when silences happen, they won’t feel as awkward.

Ask twice.
In 2014, mental health campaigners Time to Change launched Ask Twice, which encouraged people to ask how someone is twice. When asked how we are, most of us will automatically answer that we’re fine, but when asked a second time, we’re given another opportunity to be more honest about how we’re actually feeling.

Just listen.
Often in conversations, we want to share our thoughts, feelings and experiences in relation to what the other person has said, but when it comes to discussing mental health, it’s better to just give them the space to talk.

Ask open-ended questions.
Open questions allow your colleague to describe their experiences and elaborate on their feelings, rather than just answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When we talk to someone that we have some sort of trusted relationship with, our brains stabilise our levels of dopamine (the feel-good chemical), which helps us to think more clearly. Focus on building trust and comfort throughout the conversation, so that your colleague can talk without any fear of judgement.

Discuss the impact of their behaviour on the workplace.
When talking to a co-worker about their mental health, it’s also important to keep a narrative of professionalism about the conversation. It is important to address how their behaviours are impacting other members of the team or on the completion of a project. It’s not about accusing or blaming, but simply bringing awareness to the situation.

Use numbers.
Sometimes, a colleague might have trouble articulating how they feel, which can lead to further frustration. Use a scale, for example 1-12 and ask them to rate how they’re feeling about different topics (such as job satisfaction, how valued they feel in the team). When they give a numerical value, ask them when they last felt the number had been higher, or what actions could be taken to boost the number up. Avoid using a scale of 1-10 as many people will automatically just answer 7.

Remember your professional responsibilities.
There may be instances when a colleague’s behaviour negatively influences a work situation. In this case, you may consider talking to your workmate’s line manager or HR or encouraging them to do so. If the situation is ongoing, it’s a good idea to keep a note of examples of the way that their behaviour has impacted the workplace, for example, their shouting during a meeting or consistent poor time management. It’s not about snitching on your colleague but being aware of workplace protocol.

Remember: it’s not your job to diagnose it or to fix it.
Most of us have neither the knowledge nor the training to be able to name a condition or offer a resolution. You can, however, be there for someone and listen to them.

Signpost them to organisations that can help.
There are plenty of organisations, charities and forums that exist for the sole purpose of helping people with mental health issues, with experts and trained volunteers who can provide the insight and the support that someone might need. The Hub of Hope, for example, is an incredible app that helps you find mental wellbeing support in your area.