How to help a co-worker going through difficult times?

Smaller or larger setbacks are a part of life, whether we like it or not. 

It's only natural that these personal trials also find their way into the workplace to some extent. After all, we can't completely detach ourselves from our private lives when we step into the office, even though we often wish we could.

Sooner or later, challenges in life affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions at work. You probably have recognised times when focusing on the tasks at hand was unusually difficult because of persistent worries from your personal life. Even if they are not necessarily unusual in the bigger picture, certain events can easily affect work, like a child starting school for the first time, an argument with a partner, or a flat tire on the commute to work. We are feeling upset, our concentration wavers, and co-workers’ comments mostly annoy us.

With everyday troubles and obstacles, it’s fair to let your co-workers know that you're having a tough day. This at least gives your co-workers a chance to understand and offer space or assistance as needed, without misinterpreting your mood and taking personal offence.

The helpless dodge

Sometimes life presents us with serious crises that not only shake our current lives, but also alter the trajectory of our professional career. Divorce, financial worries, the death of a loved one, burnout, illness – these are major events that can disrupt and change our journey through life.

When a friend or co-worker is in the midst of an existential crisis, we often feel helpless. How should we act? What should we say? Is it best to pretend nothing has happened (even though we know something has)? It might be easier to avoid bringing up the topic altogether, perhaps even avoid the person entirely. What’s the right thing to do?

Principles of compassionate engagement

Even the smallest gesture of care and support is helpful. Having the courage to face someone struggling with life’s challenges can make a real difference. Each one of us can, in our own way, help others navigate through difficulties.

How can you be supportive when you may yourself feel powerless? Here are a few tips and principles for compassionate engagement. However, remember that you don't need to become your co-worker's saviour. In the workplace, the primary responsibility for well-being and employee resilience lies with managers and the employees themselves.

1. Listen

A cornerstone of compassionate engagement is listening. Keep your own words to a minimum and simply ask how your co-worker is doing. The opportunity  to talk is important, whether any talking happens or not. Don't pry or pressure for details. Sharing needs to be comfortable and natural. 

Active and compassionate listening includes using small words and gestures to show you are attentive. Nod at appropriate moments and maintain eye contact, for example. (No multitasking!) Avoid offering solutions or trying to ease painful feelings. There may be a time to share your own similar experiences or stories you've heard from others, but wait until you are asked to share.

If you need to say something but you are unsure what to say, be transparent: "I'm not sure what I can say to help you, but I'm here for you."

2. Stay calm

Even if your co-worker starts to cry, keep calm. Crying is a natural reaction to difficult situations. There's no need to be alarmed by it. Grief, fear, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, guilt – these are powerful and complex emotions, and entirely normal during challenging phases of life. Accept the other person's emotions, even if you don't fully comprehend them. If tears well up in your own eyes, too, that’s okay. Just keep your focus on supporting your struggling co-worker.

3. Ask if you can help

You can ask how you could help. Perhaps you can temporarily assist with some tasks at work. If your colleague is feeling overwhelmed, you could suggest discussing work arrangements with a supervisor. You could take a walk together or plan to have lunch together. Sometimes we have friendships with colleagues beyond the workplace. In such cases, your assistance could extend beyond work, such as helping with errands or childcare. However, keep the next point in mind.

4. Take care of yourself

Remember to take care of yourself as well. Being supportive is important, but it can also deplete your own energy. By caring for yourself, you're better equipped to listen and help where you can. You don't need to become a therapist. Offer help within your comfort zone and do what feels natural for you.

5. Guide onward

If the struggles continue, encourage your co-worker to seek additional support. If a direct supervisor or manager is not an option, you can suggest reaching out to occupational health services or utilising Auntie's services.

Remember that people react to challenging life situations in various ways. Some might become quite emotional, while others may withdraw and remain silent. Where one becomes unusually cheerful or hyperactive, another may act as if nothing has happened. In other words, external appearances might not accurately reflect their need for help or the extent of their suffering.

As a colleague, you don't have to be a miracle worker. Simply being yourself and showing compassion is enough. What matters most is that someone going through difficult times feels heard and seen. We are never completely alone in the midst of it all.

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