Tell someone who cares

Tell someone who cares
By Paul Clifford

With Australians working longer and pressure in many workplaces intensifying there is a good chance you will periodically witness a colleague in distress.  The signs of distress are often subtle because most employees have become accustomed to disguising them, particularly when that distress amounts to feelings of depression or anxiety and if it results in tears.  Some emotions are considered more taboo in the workplace than others.  Thinking is certainly considered far preferable than emoting at work. 

However to expect that employees will be able to control their emotions at all times during the working day is fantasy.  Workplaces that do not provide some opportunity for employees to express their emotions in a safe and appropriate way are likely to find it emerge in other ways, some of which is likely to be destructive. 

So it pays to be available for someone who is in distress who wants to talk.  The problem is that for many of us there are at least two things that tend to hold us back from being available in that way.  The first is time and the second is a feeling of being inadequate in the helping role. 
If someone is upset, depressed or anxious and wants to talk through their issues, you are almost certainly not going to be able to wrap up the conversation quickly.  The discussion is likely to have many components to it and considerable time is often required in dealing with emotion before you can reasonably look at solutions.  So lacking time is a reasonable concern.

The second inhibitor – feels of inadequacy – should be far less of a concern.  That is because we typically overestimate what it takes to be effective in this type of ‘helping’ role.  I’m sure we’ve all sat with someone who was upset and felt awkward that we didn’t know what to say.  And yet at the end of the conversation the person has thanked us so much for listening.  Being there, not just physically but psychologically by demonstrating real listening and empathy, which can be done almost solely through body language, is all that we need to do on many occasions. 
If we do want to develop our skills at being there for someone in distress at work a little further here are some other helpful reminders.

1.    Where an employee reaches out to you, avoid trying to diagnose or play the therapist.  Not only are these roles unnecessary they are counterproductive.  Keep things simple and help them focus on what they need right now.  The person needs to take responsibility for identifying and finding solutions for deeper issues.

2.    Keep the focus on them, not you.  At the right time and in minimal amounts of detail, your similar story of distress might help but it can be risky.  Done at the wrong time and in an inappropriate way can exacerbate the other person’s distress and sense of loneliness.

3.    A conversation like this will inevitably require a lot of patience allowing the person to express themselves and their emotions.  It is critical that you allow whatever time is required to exhaust this part of the process before you transition to examining solutions. 

4.    Recognise that you need to maintain certain boundaries and be alert to actions or words by either party that may overreach the boundaries.  Your role is to facilitate independence in that person, not to encourage them to become dependent on you.

5.    If you find yourself talking with a colleague in distress and you hear or see something that you don’t know how to respond to it may be worthwhile speaking to someone you trust in your organisation who may be able to give you guidance.  In that case it may be appropriate to maintain the anonymity of the person but simply seek guidance in how you would respond generally in that situation. 

Being available for others in distress can be of enormous value to you, the person in distress and your organisation.  For the person in distress it can be a huge relief to feel that someone cares and that they are not alone.  For you, your role in helping can build valuable skills that can be translated into other domains and give you positive feelings that can help build your own resilience.  For the organisation, those who are available in this way help build a supportive culture and can go a long way to keeping valuable staff employed. 

So before you turn away from someone in distress at work, remember that it is quite probably easier than you think to lend an ear and you will be doing yourself and your organisation a great service.   


  • Grahame Dodd Friday, 17 April 2015

    Thanks for raising this in a practical way, Paul. I remember reading some research years ago that showed conversations with friends was often more effective than therapy. Not to say that it can replace professional help in all cases but certainly very appropriate. I suspect that another inhibitor is our fear of being seen to 'pry' if the person is not already well known to us but let's just get over it and be human. If only some of us model this behaviour using your suggestions, we'll start to turn around our workplace cultures.

  • Paul Clifford Sunday, 19 April 2015

    No problems Grahame. Absolutely, friends and colleagues can be more effective than therapy, it's about choice really, some people will prefer to see a psychologist, others would prefer friends/colleagues. It's important that organisations create cultures that allow both options to be supported.

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