Mental Health at Work: Supporting a Colleague

Mental Health at Work: Supporting a Colleague

For many people, work is a big part of our lives. It’s somewhere we go nearly everyday, where we make a lot of our friends, and where we make our income. But what do you do when you notice a colleague’s mental health is significantly declining on a day to day basis?

It’s important at work that we’re all looking out for each other, and that we sustain a healthy workplace where employee’s feel like they are able to address mental health, without having a negative reaction. Whilst mental health is slowly becoming a less stigmatised subject, a lot of people feel that they are unable to address the impact that it’s having on their lives with their manager, and this is due to the sensitive culture of a working environment. If you notice that a colleague is struggling, and they are in need of some extra support or care, it’s important that you can be there for them.

35% said they feel their employer would think negatively of them.
32% feel there is a stigma attached to mental health.
32% don’t think they will get the right support from their employer.
23% feel it would impact their chances of progression.

Signs a Colleague is Struggling

When you notice that one of your colleague’s aren’t doing as well as they used to be, it’s vital not to make assumptions and jump to a diagnosis. There are chances that they could just be having a bad week. But a lot of the time, it is their mental health fluctuating. It’s important that we address the problem before it gets out of hand. Focus on the person, and not the problem. Staying silent is one of the worst things you can do, when someone is feeling alone and isolated, they might really need someone to ask how they’re doing, because no one else is. You need to ensure that when asking a colleague if everything is okay, that you’re not too direct, as this could make them feel embarrassed. Try asking things such as “I’ve noticed that you’ve been a lot more quite recently, is everything okay?” or if they elaborate ask “How have things been recently? I’m here if you need a chat.” By asking how they are, in turn might make them feel more relax, and like someone wants to help them, and that they know that help is always available. It’s vital that you don’t force anything, let them lead the conversation. The golden rule for supporting a colleague is never assume, always ask.

So what are the warning signs that your co-worker isn’t doing too good? Your usually dependable colleague is missing deadlines that they would usually reach, failing to get to work on time consistently, or suddenly failing to turn up to work on time. You may wonder what other signs there are that their mental health is affecting them, here’s a list of warning signs that could mean your colleague’s struggling.

  • Loss of self esteem
  • Taking less care of their self, for example eating badly or not caring about their appearance.
  • Noticing that they’re feeling a sense of hopelessness or usefulness.
  • Joking or talking about ending their life.
  • A noticeable change of behaviour, for example appearing withdrawn or having difficulty communicating.
  • Isolation or loneliness
  • Changes in their work output. Motivation or focus dropped, not putting as much effort as they used to into their work.
  • Lack of sleep, appearing tired and ‘not with it’.
  • Struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems.
  • Changes in eating habits, appetite increased, smoking more and drinking more.

How You Can Help

Now you’ve recognised the signs, what can you do to help? Sometimes it’s hard to see a colleague struggling, you may think that it’s out of your control, and that you’re just a spectator, but you are wrong. There are so many ways we are able to offer help, even if it’s just a check up every so often.

Show Them That You Care

Quite often, people feel that they don’t know how to approach a colleague about their mental health when they feel the time is right, but it’s important that we take away the stigmatisation surrounding mental illnesses. Showing a co-worker that they are valued, and that you care about their well being could have a huge impact on the persons health. Showing that you care can even start off as simply asking how they are. You don’t need to be specific, as this isn’t always appropriate. It’s also important to ensure that they feel included. Invite them to your after work plans, invite them to the pub after work for a pint or ask if they would like to join you at lunch. But don’t put too much pressure on them, you need to understand that a lot of the time, they may not feel up to it, and that’s okay, because they know the offer is there, and they will in turn feel more included. A lot of the time people suffering with mental illnesses feel uncomfortable eating in front of other people, or become nervous in social situations, so don’t feel offended if they decline, you don’t have to make grand gestures to show that you care, you can do little things like asking them if they’d like a cup of tea or include them in your coffee run.

Listen to Them

If your colleague does decide to open up about what they’re going through, give them the time that they need and ensure to listen openly, simply giving someone the space to talk freely, with no interruption or judgement can be extremely helpful within it’s self. Try using open ended questions, these are the best as this is able to give them the space that they need to reply without simply being led to yes or no. It may be best to have this conversation away from others, for the colleagues own piece of mind, privacy and comfort. Once/if they have decided to open up to you, its vital that you keep the information to yourself. Respect the other persons privacy and don’t gossip around the office, but you must ensure that you don’t force them to talk about it. It’s an incredibly personal matter, not everyone wishes to talk about their personal life at work, so its crucial that this is respected.

It’s also important that you’re not giving unsolicited advice, even if you have good intentions. You need to ensure that you are only giving advice if it’s asked for, it’s okay to share your own experiences, or to encourage them to seek professional help, but you need to remember you’re not a trained doctor, so it’s best to leave that to the professionals.

When to Tell Someone

Generally, you want to keep all observations and discussions with your coworker confidential. But sometimes, if you worry it might affect their safety or the safety of others it’s the right thing to do. A lot of the time with sufferers of mental illnesses, their behaviour is erratic and unpredictable, so this could result in putting them self in a harmful scenario. Another situation where you might feel you need to tell someone is when they’re in a higher position than you, and you feel that approaching the subject would lead to a negative impact on you, or change your relationship with them. This is when you would go about speaking to HR, or the person’s manager. This can be hard to do, of course, but most of the time it’s the right thing to do, there’s a cultural taboo about being a snitch, but you need to remember you’re not snitching, you’re helping, and if you weren’t to do that things could get a lot worse for the person. If the environment is becoming toxic, and you’re unable to get work done, it’s your responsibility to go to someone who can help

Another thing that your employer may be able to provide to your colleague is reasonable adjustments. When talking to them, let them know that there are things that can be done to make their time at work easier. There are many different things that your employers are able to offer if you are at a disadvantage to someone who is mentally healthy, the type of adjustment that you agree on will vary depending on your role, the size of your organisation, and your individual needs. The law is in place to protect you from discrimination, if they choose not to disclose fully to your employer, they can still talk about things that are making their job difficult, such as workload, communication and their working environment. A few example’s of reasonable adjustments that can be made are:

  • Extending flexible working policies to allow them to commute outside of rush hours
  • Being allowed to take time off work for appointments
  • Changes to their working area
  • Allowing them to work at home on occasion if this is helpful
  • Temporarily re-allocating tasks they find stressful and difficult


If you notice a colleague is struggling, never push it aside. Ask if they’re okay, listen to them and be there for them. It’s important that we’re all there for each other at work, and that we know that the help that we need is available.