Supporting a Friend or Co-Worker Suffering From Stress
Lending a Helping Hand When Things Get Tough
Lyra couldn't help but notice the change in Cassie. Her friend had always been cheerful and chatty, but lately she had become snappy and dismissive.
Cassie was always the first to arrive at work, and among the last to leave. But then she started coming into work later and later, and was often in a rush to leave at the end of the day, too.
Lyra was worried. She wanted to help, but just didn't know what to do. So she kept quiet. Eventually, her relationship with her friend all but disappeared and, after a few months, Cassie handed in her notice and left.
Cassie was suffering from stress, something that's all too common in modern, high-demand workplaces. If Lyra had recognized this, and known how to support her, she might have been able to help, and to preserve their friendship.
In this article, you can learn how to identify stress in others, and explore a five-step strategy for tactfully offering your support, without becoming overburdened yourself.
How to Identify Stress in Others
Stress is what happens when the demands placed on someone exceed what he or she can readily cope with.
While a certain amount of pressure is a part of everyday life, and can actually help people to perform better, too much pressure can cause stress to build.
Even if your organization has a policy on mental health and an active HR manager or team, it's most likely a friend or co-worker who'll be the first person to notice a change in someone's behavior that could indicate stress.
Here are a few examples of unusual behaviors that could be signs of stress:
- Snapping at colleagues.
- Losing concentration.
- Putting off decisions.
- Emotional volatility.
- Erratic behavior.
Why Giving Support Matters
Even when you know that someone is suffering from stress, it can be difficult to broach the subject. You might be scared of causing offense, making it worse, or causing the other person to become angry or emotional.
But offering your support can be a crucial first step in battling the often serious mental and physical problems caused by excessive stress, such as burnout, depression, sleeplessness, fatigue, and even heart disease.
The problems caused by stress can also go beyond the individual who is suffering. It can begin to impact his or her performance at work, forcing others to "pick up the slack," and relationships to break down.
Your support can help to the ease the impact of these "side effects" and to keep team relationships strong.
How to Support a Stressed Co-Worker
In this section, we explore five ways you can offer practical and emotional support to a colleague who is suffering from stress:
1. Establish a Connection
If you suspect that someone is experiencing stress, find a quiet moment to ask him how he's doing.
It may take a bit of courage to approach him at first, particularly if he's frequently angry or upset. So, be cautious. Talk to him in private, and be tactful and sensitive.
Start the conversation with a neutral question that encourages him to open up. For example, "I've noticed that you don't seem quite yourself lately. Are you OK? Can I help?"
He may not want to talk, in which case you'll need to respect his privacy. Though you can still let him know that you're there if he ever does want to chat.
If he does open up, use your emotional intelligence, and listen to his answer empathically and without judgment. This will show him that you're engaged and that you care. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is listening can go a long way toward easing the burden of stress.
2. Get to the Root of the Problem
Stress can be triggered by a number of different things. It might spike at regular intervals (when preparing monthly reports, say, or meeting mortgage payments), be continuous (a difficult relationship at work or at home), or be a one-off (coping with a bereavement or a personal loss).
The support that you give to your friend or co-worker will depend on what the problem is. So, try to get to the root of it by asking open questions that encourage her to talk about her feelings, and what triggered them.
In a work environment, problems usually stem from one of three sources:
- Workload: she simply has more work to do than she can cope with.
- Competency: she feels that she doesn't have the skills that she needs to successfully carry out her job.
- Relationships: she feels that a colleague is being aggressive, unhelpful or hostile.
Stress doesn't always develop from issues at work. If you think that your co-worker's problem stems from home, be even more sensitive in how you approach him. There may not be any practical way you can help out, but you can still listen and empathize.
3. Suggest Practical Ways Forward
If the root of your co-worker's stress does fall into once of the three sources above, use these strategies to offer some practical solutions:
People with challenging workloads often struggle because they're unable to see an end to what they have to do. What's more, stress can cause people to become even more disorganized and confused, and the whole cycle begins again.
Start by helping your co-worker to get organized. First, sit down with her and draw up a To-Do List. Then assign a number to each task, based on its priority. If she has any large, time-consuming jobs that she finds overwhelming, try breaking them down into manageable chunks. This will make it easier for her to achieve "quick wins."
If there are any low-priority tasks on the list, you could offer to help out – if you have the capacity – or suggest delegating the work to someone else on the team.
Assigning work is the responsibility of your co-worker's line manager, so always check with him or her before you rearrange workloads. If possible, encourage the person experiencing stress to do this. If he feels unable to, discreetly raise the issue with his manager.
When someone feels "out of her depth" at work, it can be seriously debilitating and demoralizing, even when it's not true.
Remind her of similar tasks that she's performed well in the past, or of other areas where she has excelled or helped other team members. If there is a genuine skills gap, suggest that she talks to her manager about training or mentoring.
It might be a hard "pill to swallow," but, in some cases, people who feel under-skilled and ill-prepared for their jobs may benefit from a change of role. Chances are, you can't help with this particular problem, except by suggesting the possibility as tactfully and positively as possible.
Difficult relationships often cause stress to spike. Whether it's a bullying manager, an awkward client, or a sarcastic co-worker, most of us can think of someone who sends our blood pressure pumping.
Listen carefully to what your co-worker is experiencing, and see whether you can offer a different perspective. Don't take sides, as this could inflame the situation. But see if you can "reframe" the behavior of the other person, especially if you think that your friend has misconstrued things.
However, if the behavior is unacceptable (for instance, if your colleague is being bullied, harassed, or treated unfairly), encourage him to be assertive, and to seek help from his line manager or from HR.
In some instances your co-worker may not feel confident enough to talk about her problems with her manager or HR. If this is the case, you could offer to go with her, or to speak up on her behalf. But, if you do this, always get the person's consent beforehand. Otherwise she may see it as a breach of trust, and react angrily.
If, however, the problem is serious, or is beginning to impact other people's work, you may have no choice but to pass it on to your manager.
4. Offer Friendship
You can't always unpick someone else's problems – and trying to do so may even end up causing you stress, too. But you can still be kind and supportive.
Make your co-worker a coffee now and again, and make sure that he knows that you're always available as a "sounding board."
If the problem is severe and persistent, encourage him to contact your organization's employee assistance program, if it has one, which may be able to provide professional help. Alternatively, point him in the direction of external support networks, charities or advice lines.
Simple actions like going out for a walk together to talk things over can help to cement a friendship, and will likely make it easier for your friend to discuss her problems.
Getting out of the office also gives you both an opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise, which can help to alleviate stress too.
5. Don't Get Too Involved
Your support will likely ease the burden of stress that your friend is feeling, but remember that your own reserves of time, capacity, capability, and even patience are finite, too.
There will only be so much that you can listen to, think about, and advise on without feeling overloaded by it all. You may find that it starts to drag you down, eventually. It might even drive a wedge between you and your co-worker, if you're not careful.
You want the best possible outcome for your co-worker, but this mustn't come at the expense of your own well-being.
Research shows that stress can have a "ripple effect" on the people that are close to the sufferer. Take a look at our article, Heron's Six Categories of Intervention, for tips on how to help people through stress more effectively if this happens.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only.
Readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major changes are made to diet or to exercise.
It can be tricky to know how to help friends or colleagues who are suffering from stress. But doing so can help to ease the symptoms of stress, such as burnout, fatigue or depression.
Even if you're not a manager, if you see a friend or colleague suffering there are several things you can do to support him or her:
- Establish a connection.
- Get to the root of the problem.
- Suggest practical ways forward.
- Offer friendship.
- Don't get too involved.
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