Supporting Co-Workers in Times of Distress

supporting coworkers

When you spend 40 hours a week at work, you develop relationships with your colleagues. Whether you become close friends or you chit-chat when you both are in the break room. Your co-workers are not strangers, so when one of them is going through something difficult in their personal lives, it’s natural for you to want to show them support. 

The thing is, knowing how to appropriately check-in with or support your co-worker can be complicated. If the two of you are close at work and even chat outside of work, navigating this may be a little easier. But, if it’s someone that you genuinely care about but that you aren’t good friends with, it’s murkier. 

There is no perfect way to check in with a co-worker who is going through something hard at home because there are some considerations to consider beyond the obvious atmosphere and culture of your company. What exactly is happening? What is their personality type? How comfortable are you in situations like these? 

No matter what, it’s important to show up for your co-worker in some way when they’re going through something difficult, and there are a variety of ways to do it. 

How To Know Something Is Going On

Not everyone shares the same amount of personal information with their co-workers. A person’s personality type will heavily influence how they do (or don’t) decide to tell the people they work with about their situation. However, if they are suddenly acting differently, that may be a sign that something is going on. Here are some examples:

  • Lashing out or becoming easily irritated
  • They’ve become disengaged from their work, or their performance is slipping seemingly out of nowhere
  • High levels of anxiety, stress, or both 
  • Incapable of making big decisions 
  • Showing up late, leaving early, or stepping out for appointments regularly 
  • They seem generally down or sad

If you’re noticing all of this, but you have not been explicitly told that something is going on with your colleague, then you shouldn’t try to pry information out of them. Instead, take note of the behavior and assume they’re in a position where they could use a little extra grace and support from co-workers. 

Of course, you may be fully aware of what’s going on because either they told you or someone in leadership let everyone know. In this case, you’ll likely see some of the same behaviors, but it’ll just be a little easier to give them a pass since you know the cause. 

Common Scenarios

Not everything a co-worker goes through is something you should be consistently checking in on them. For instance, if they had outpatient knee surgery, it’s appropriate to ask them how they are doing/feeling when they return to work and then follow up with how it’s going after a few weeks. In this case, it is a pretty easy situation to navigate because it’s not exactly complex. 

More difficult circumstances include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Medical diagnosis, either for themself or someone they love
  • Marital issues such as divorce or custody battles
  • A problem with their child at school; could include behavior issues, slipping grades, a bullying situation, etc. 
  • High level of external stress colliding with general work stress
  • Struggling with their mental health, or with someone’s they love

Each of these scenarios is different, which is why there is no one-size-fits-all way to check in with your colleagues. You’ll have to use your judgement to determine how often and for how long to offer your support. For instance, how you check in with someone who lost their parent six months ago is much different from how you want to show support to someone going through cancer treatments.

📖Read more: Discover more ways to show support to co-workers.

Ways To Check-In & Show Support

Don’t avoid them, especially if they know that you know their circumstances. It could make them feel ostracized, creating an already tough situation all the more sadder for them. 

Ask them directly how they’re doing. You can do this over email, through a text, or in person, whichever you are most comfortable. If you decide to ask in person, try to do it in a one-on-one situation so that you’re not putting them on the spot. 

how to support a coworker

Example: I’ve been thinking about your partner’s accident recovery. I hope they continue to feel better. What about you? How are you holding up as their caregiver? I know that can be challenging. 

Offer to help them by taking some work off of their plate. If you’re able to, offer to do some of the work they’ve been tasked with so they have a little more room to breathe at work. Depending on their personality, you can offer to take on one of the more complex tasks so they can coast a little bit, or you can contribute to take on some of their busy work. 

How to support a coworker

Example: Hey! I know you’ve been in and out of the office a lot for appointments with your child. Why don’t I take on [insert task here] for you to make it a little easier to stay caught up? 

Don’t ask how you can help. Take initiative. Have food delivered to their house or give them a card with a gift certificate to a nearby restaurant or delivery service. Or, you can go directly to your boss and offer to take on some of their work (this keeps your boss in the loop and lets them have some control in redistributing the work). 

Listen when they talk, don’t try to shine a positive light on the situation. They may not want to see the silver lining at that moment, and that is okay. If they’re opening up to you, offer an ear to listen and validate whatever they’re feeling, even if you hate to see them feeling that way and want to do what you can to make it better. 

How to support a coworker

Example: I am so sorry for your loss. I know this has been a difficult time for you and your family. From my perspective, you are handling everything with a lot of grace and it’s very admirable. 

If someone is gossiping about it, intervene. Your co-worker may not see this support, but it’s still something you can do for them. If you hear people whispering about the situation or coming up with their theories about what’s going on, chime in and remind them that your co-worker is really struggling right now and that they could use some compassion. 

Continue to check in. Don’t let your support be a one-and-done thing. Continue to ask how they’re doing on a regular basis (but not so regular that it’s overwhelming or it becomes the only thing that you talk to them about). Often, once the event has passed outsiders forget it even happened, while the person who experienced it is still grieving it in some way. 

Personality Types Matter

When you’re coming up with a plan for showing your support to someone, make sure you’re keeping their personality type in mind. Someone outgoing may appreciate you chatting with them in person, while a more reserved co-worker might prefer an email or a card. Also, if you’re going to offer to help lighten their workload for a while, think about the type of employee they are to determine whether it’s best to approach them first or to bypass them and go to the boss (because they’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to ask for or accept help). If you aren’t close enough with this person to know their personality type well, then it’s best to play it safe with a card or an email now and then.

A Little Support Goes A Long Way

While not every situation calls for in-depth support, every individual deserves some kind of compassion for whatever it is they’re going through. You may not have the bandwidth to take on more work or the means to send their family dinner now and then, and that’s okay, because something as small as a “Thinking of you” sticky note on their desk is a nice way to let them know you’re there if they need you. Sometimes, that’s really all a person needs, is the assurance that they’re not alone. 


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