If you’ve ever seen a colleague suffering at work you know how difficult it can be to figure out how to help. Mental health issues and work don’t have to be an uncomfortable mix if you focus on genuine concern for the other person and do some legwork ahead of time. Here’s how to say something helpful in an appropriate way that won’t cross boundaries or set yourself up for being the in-office therapist.
Strike the best tone
What’s most important during any conversation about someone’s well-being? The intention to hold on to a sense of caring for the other person. This can be true no matter who the person is - close friend or acquaintance. Holding a genuine sense of caring will make it easier for them to hear what you say because the caring shines through. It doesn’t have to be an invitation to emotional intimacy or oversharing, just an attitude grounded in the belief that everyone is worthwhile. One way to make sure this is clear is to make time for the conversation. Don’t catch them in the break room or around the coffee pot. Take the time to let them know you’ve been paying attention and you’re concerned.
Broach the subject objectively
The simplest way to begin is with “I” statements about what you’ve noticed. For example, if you’re a friend you could say, “I’m worried about you. I’ve noticed that you’ve been late more than usual the last two weeks and you seem really down. I’ve also missed you coming out to lunch with us. I’m worried about you. Is everything okay?” This is much more effective than starting with, “What’s up with you? You seem off your game?” which can put someone on edge and be deflected with, “Nothing, I’m fine.”
If the person you’re concerned about is your employee (or boss, though this can be scarier), an objective and specific approach is more appropriate. For example, “I’m checking in with you because I’ve noticed several absences and two missed deadlines in recent weeks. This is really unusual behavior for you. Is everything okay?” By objectifying the problem you’re not passing judgement and you’re starting with facts, which can’t be disputed.
Whether they open up about their struggles or get defensive, stay present and calm and remember your goal: make it safe for them to consider getting help. If they are defensive, don’t push or get angry. Instead, let them know you were asking out of concern, you want the best for them, and that you’re not judging them. You can say these things out loud, or you can show them with a simple pause and a kind look. If you can do so honestly, let them know you’ve been through tough times and you know what that looks and feels like.
Names and numbers
If they acknowledge a problem, here’s your chance. Tell them that you want to help and that the best way you can think to do that is to help them find an expert who can help them see their situation from a whole new perspective. Do the legwork for them - offer the names and phone numbers of more than one therapist. Handing someone a handwritten list of names and numbers can make all the difference.
Encourage investment or experimentation
If you sense resistance, two approaches can help. Frame therapy as an investment in their future happiness and success, like buying stocks when the market is low, or frame it as an experiment, something they can try for a month and see how they like it, with no obligation. Either way, you’re making it less risky and more of an opportunity to learn.
Follow up, but don’t pry
Once you’ve offered someone names and numbers, wait and see what happens. You can’t make someone get help, but if things get noticeably better or worse you can check in with them again at some point. Alternatively, if they begin to open up to you more than you’d like, remind them that you’re not an expert and you’d really like to see them get help from someone who is.
No matter what happens, expressing respectful and genuine caring to someone at work - or anywhere - is always worthwhile.