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Ask The Expert : I’m worried about a colleague’s mental wellbeing

This article’s expert on mental wellbeing was Carolyn Barber

Question

“I’ve noticed that one of my colleagues, who used to join in with the team’s laughs and pranks, has stopped contributing in any way. Whenever I ask if she’s ok, she turns away and mumbles that of course she is.  I rely on her to provide some background information which allows me to produce quarterly reports for our boss, but whenever I ask, she tells me she’ll get round to it.  I feel stuck in the middle as I don’t want to pressurise her as she’s obviously not herself, but I’m also under pressure from our manager.  What can I do to help without appearing to be a tell-tale or a busy-body?”

Answer

This is a very common dilemma in the workplace.  We feel concern for a colleague, but we also rely on them as part of a team effort.  So what is the best way to approach this kind of situation?

There’s no right answer for every situation – work circumstances vary; individual relationships with colleagues will be different; your own role and responsibilities and those of your colleague will be very specific to your own work situation.

Let’s consider some steps you could take.

The first step is to notice, become more aware, of what’s going on with your colleague in the workplace.  This may sound like being nosy, but it’s more about being concerned.  You said her behaviour had changed quite dramatically.  When did you first notice this?  Is this affecting other people in the team?  Are there any occasions when she seems back to her usual self?  Rather than ask if someone’s OK, or ‘would you like to talk’, you can include what you’ve observed first, for example ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed really down over the last couple of weeks, not your usual self. Would you like to have a chat?’.

If someone is feeling anxious or depressed, for whatever reason, there’s a tendency to cut themselves off from communicating with others, and others tend to ‘leave them be’ because they don’t want to be intrusive.  But social interaction is an important way to help people through such difficult times.  An eminent psychologist was once asked about the best way to help people, and he said to ask them to help you.  This is invaluable advice – asking someone to help means they feel valued and respected, plus you get some help into the bargain!

The next step is to consider your own problem.  How much are you reliant on this particular colleague to provide you with information?  What’s your deadline, or is it more of an ongoing process?  Realistically, what are the consequences for you if she doesn’t give you the information you need?  Are there other solutions?  How do you imagine your colleague might feel, if say you were able to get this information in another way?  It’s helpful to examine your problem in this way, break it down, because often we worry about things in a kind of generalised way and go round in circles.  Being much more specific helps us to look at possible solutions we might not have thought of before.

In some situations it may become clear either that the best course of action is to talk to your manager about your concerns, or that you need to have a direct conversation with your colleague about your work problem.  It’s important not to try and speculate about what might be causing her change of behaviour, and focus instead on your own observations and the consequences for you in carrying out your particular role and responsibilities.

The LEAP model, used by In Equilibrium trainers, can help with such challenging conversations.  Be straightforward about your own concerns in relation to work, and the difficulties you’re experiencing because she isn’t giving you the information you need.

L is for Listen. Allow the person the time and space to tell you about their own situation or feelings.
E is for Empathise.  This is about acknowledging their feelings – ‘I can see you’re upset’, ‘You seem to be very angry about this, am I right?’
A is for Asking Questions. This is your opportunity to check things out, clarify your understanding of the situation.
P is for Problem Solving.

Often people go from listening to problem solving which can leave the other person still feeling misunderstood.  By making sure you show empathy and ask questions, the other person is much more likely to become involved in their own problem solving.

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