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How to Support Co-Workers Suffering From Stress

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We look at how you can identify stress in others and the steps you can take to tactfully support your co-workers without overburdening yourself.

Stress in the workplace is a significant issue in the UK, with a recent survey finding that 75% of British adults in employment commonly experience work-related stress. Given the prevalence of this very harmful condition, statistically speaking, at least one of your team members or the co-workers sitting beside you is likely to be experiencing a substantial amount of stress. That means that at some point, whether directly or indirectly, it’ll also affect you. 

With that in mind, if a co-worker tells you that they’re feeling anxious, depressed or struggling to cope as a result of work-related stress, what should you do? In this part of our guide to Managing Business Stress, we look at how you can identify stress in others and the steps you can take to tactfully offer your support to staff and co-workers without becoming overburdening yourself.

A Word of Caution

The desire to help colleagues that are struggling can be a strong one, but before you dive in, it’s important to protect yourself. Like a contagion, stress spreads. That’s because your brain is hardwired to pick up on the emotional states of those around you. Simply watching someone who is stressed can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. 

For that reason, you should take the time to remind yourself that this stress is not yours. If you do start to feel stressed, then take a backward step and ask for help from a line manager or HR.

How to Recognise Work-Related Stress in Others

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as:

“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”.  

Although pressure is a common part of most jobs, it leads to stress when the pressure becomes too much or there’s no break from it. 

Although line managers and HR teams are getting better at recognising and dealing with stress, it will usually be a colleague or friend who’ll be the first to notice a change in someone’s behaviour that indicates work-related stress.  

Some of the behaviours that are symptomatic of work-related stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Tearfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Snapping at colleagues
  • A lack of focus and concentration
  • Putting off decisions
  • Erratic behaviour
  • Poor punctuality and an increase in absenteeism

If you notice a change in a co-worker’s behaviour, for example, a once chatty and cheerful colleague has become withdrawn and is often late to work, then they could be suffering from work-related stress.

Should You Support a Co-Worker Suffering From Stress? 

The answer to this question is a personal one and depends on how well you know the co-worker and whether you feel comfortable broaching the subject with them. Ignoring your co-worker’s stress does not make you a bad person. We all have our own lives to deal with and it may be more than you want to take on. 

However, offering your support, reassuring them of your confidentiality and providing an empathetic ear can be a huge step in helping to ease the impact of the stress and find a productive route forward.

How Can You Support a Co-Worker Suffering From Stress?

  1. Establish a connection
     

If you think that a co-worker might be suffering from stress, then the first step is to find a quiet moment to talk to them in a private area. Although it can take courage to say those first words, a neutral question that’s delivered tactfully can encourage them to open up.

It may be that initially, your co-worker may not want to talk to you about it, in which case, you should respect their privacy and let them come to you if they want to. If they do open up, then you should adopt a calm demeanour and listen to what they have to say without interrupting. For some people, even just being listened to can start to ease the burden of their stress. 

  1. Identify the Root Cause of the Problem

Work-related stress can be triggered by any number of things. It could be short-term and due to a temporary increase in workload or an impending deadline, or an ongoing issue resulting from job insecurity, a lack of autonomy or a poor relationship with a line manager. 

The key is to listen, ask open questions and not agree to or justify the stress. You should act as a sounding board so that the person feels heard. That will encourage them to open up and talk about how they are feeling and why. 

  1. Suggest helpful ways forward

You don’t have to be a stress expert or an HR practitioner to suggest solutions that can help to reduce the stress. Once you know that the stressors are work-related, then as a line manager, thinking about the following questions can help you to put practical solutions in place. 

  • Can the stressors be removed or reduced?
  • If not, what support can the individual be given to help them cope?
  • What resources are available to help? 
  • Are there HR policies, such as flexible working, that could help to reduce the stress?
  • How is the stress impacting others in the team?
  • Have your management practices made the situation worse? Then think about what you can do better to support staff in the future.
  • What follow-up actions /checks are needed?

While those are appropriate questions to ask as a manager, as a colleague, your approach should be less formal. For example, if a challenging workload is the problem, offer to help them draw up a to-do list based on the priority of each task. Breaking down tasks into more manageable chunks can help. If you have the capacity, you could offer to help out with low-priority tasks or suggest they are delegated to other people in the team. 

Something to consider: Assigning work is the job of the line manager, so always check with them before you start rearranging workloads.

If the co-worker feels that they do not have the skills or experience to perform a task, remind them how well they have done with similar tasks in the past and try to boost their confidence. If there is a genuine skills gap, then encourage them to talk to a colleague who may be able to help or suggest that they ask their manager about training or mentoring. 


Something to consider: In some cases, co-workers may not have the skills or experience to be able to do the job properly. In that case, there’s not a lot you can do other than tactfully suggesting that a change of role might be the best solution.    

If difficult relationships with colleagues, managers or awkward clients are the cause of the stress, then listening to the problems your co-worker is experiencing and offering a different perspective can be helpful. For example, if you think the behaviour of a colleague has been misunderstood or misconstrued, you could reframe their behaviour and try to show it in a different light. However, if they are being treated unfairly, you should encourage them to seek help from their line manager or HR.

Something to consider: If your co-worker does not feel confident enough to approach HR or their line manager, you could offer to go with them to provide support.

  1. Offer friendship 

The truth is that it’s not always possible to reduce someone’s work-related stress for them, but you can still offer them support and friendship. Inviting them out for a walk or for lunch (preferably for some healthy food) will help them to get away from the cause of the stress and make the situation seem more manageable.

Checking in with them throughout the day, whether it’s through a messaging system or in person, or sharing something that they can listen to while they work, could also provide some escapism. 

  1. Don’t become overburdened

As we’ve said, work-related stress can easily be passed from person to person, so you mustn’t become so involved that you start to feel the effects. You have finite reserves of time, energy and capability, and putting your efforts into helping someone through a stressful situation while working in the same demanding workplace can quickly take its toll.  

If you’re starting to feel overloaded by the situation then you have no choice but to take a step back to protect your own wellbeing. At this point, you should advise your co-worker to seek the assistance of a line manager, HR or even a health professional.  

Read part 6 of our guide to Managing Business Stress – Where to Get Help For Work-Related Stress.