How to Help a Struggling Coworker

As nice as it would be for our personal and professional lives could remain separate, the two often intersect and impact one another.  This crossover can be OK if appropriate boundaries are in place with limited interaction between the two.  However, as work and home merge closer and closer together, it is not easy to draw those lines.  When it starts to affect the rest of the staff for a prolonged period, it will be detrimental to the agency and the work that everyone needs to do.

When employees struggle, here are some methods you can use to help overcome those challenges.

Go directly to the employee –

When a co-worker is irritable and short-tempered, it can quickly impact everyone who needs to work with them.  And while it may seem most comfortable to ignore the behavior and hope it will go away on its own, chances are the behavior will continue and possibly worsen.

Rather than try to walk gently on the thin ice building around your colleague indefinitely, an honest approach is best.  Take some time to make notes about how the behavior is impacting you and the work.  Remember, there is no need to represent the whole group – this can cause the individual to feel like everyone is against them.  Instead, use personal statements like “I feel” or “This is what I’m seeing.”  Express your thoughts and feelings in a calm and understanding way, straightforwardly delivering the information, but ensuring your tone communicates that you are not angry or on the attack but instead coming to them to help them understanding and find a solution.

Be Willing to Risk the Relationship

When a co-worker starts to exhibit irritable behavior that is out of the ordinary, there is a good chance that there is a more significant issue at play.  It could be work-related, or it could be something problematic in their personal life.  Regardless, it is likely a sensitive subject. 

Communicating clearly while still deploying empathy is critical to creating a safe space for the employee to share their problems and reduce the chances of exasperating an already stressful situation.  Depending on the severity of the problem, your co-worker may need significant help and may not be able to appreciate your interference in the heat of the situation.   Recognize that while you may want to preserve the relationship you have with the individual, intervention that puts a friendship or working relationship at risk may be necessary. 

Identify Appropriate Support

Depending on the cause of the sudden increase of stress for the employee, there will likely be immediate and more long-term needs.

Taking time to understand the scope of the problem and what support looks like in the short-term and the future is essential.  The agency may be able to provide some support depending on the extent of the employee’s needs.  This support could include assistance obtaining professional help, adjusting their workload, more regular check-ins from co-workers or a supervisor, or even a leave of absence.  Support can look like so many things.  Being prepared to pull together those individuals who the employee feels comfortable confiding in and making support a team effort may be the best way to get a friend and colleague through a challenging situation.

Stress levels of employees will have peaks and valleys with personal triggers for each person.  Using the steps above will help you navigate and support those difficult situations.

For more on this topic, listen to the full episode of The Independent Agent below.

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