Workplace mental health: Should a manager or colleague reach out to a distressed employee?

Any sudden changes in behavior or work might be an indication of emotional distress.

Lalithashree Ganesh

Do you remember noticing sudden changes in a colleague's behavior at any time? Someone who was going about their work in an organized manner suddenly becoming distressed and unable to focus on work? Or a colleague who skipped work frequently, or one who talked about self harm?

Chances are, these sudden changes in behavior are an indicator of some sort of emotional distress or mental illness. And a person who is distressed may not reach out and ask anyone for help. As a manager or a colleague, the first step you can take to help is to approach them and offer a listening ear.

The signs are always there, although they may not be obvious at first. However, as a manager or a colleague, you can make a difference by taking notice and reaching out. 

When should you reach out?

As a manager or colleague, you can consider reaching out when the person:

  • Has increased and unexplained absenteeism
  • Is at work but is unable to focus or perform
  • Shows a sudden lack of care for physical appearance or lack of hygiene
  • Seems distracted or lost often
  • Mumbles to themselves often 
  • Talks of self-harm
  • Paces up and down
  • Seems preoccupied
  • Has low energy when compared to their energy levels from before 
  • Shows signs of aggression

If you notice any of the above signs in your colleague for a considerable amount of time (at least two weeks), it may be time to reach out. If you are a manager, you may reach out if you notice consistent low productivity, increased tardiness or increased aggression.

With a supportive, empathetic, helpful, non-judgemental and non-threatening attitude when you reach out, you can immediately put them at ease and allow them to share their story. Let them know you are available to listen without judging their words or their body language when they communicate. While there is no set rule of communication in such circumstances, genuine concern and unconditional acceptance are most essential. For instance, you could approach your distressed colleague in such a manner:

"Hi ___________, how are you doing? I get a sense that something may be disturbing you. I am concerned about you and I just want to let you know that I am totally available if you would like to talk. I would love to help in any way I can. 

I may not have any answers for you, but sometimes it is helpful just to be able to talk to someone so I would be more than happy to do so. I know how hard it is to find someone one can trust to talk to, so if you feel comfortable I would be happy to be that person." 

A little bit of self-disclosure may help the person open up too. Sharing a similar experience you had, or talking about a difficult situation you faced and came out of will reassure the person and build a sense of trust. This would also help the person speak without the fear of being judged.

Nevertheless, make sure you don't put them down at any point in time or take the conversation over and make it all about yourself and your problems. Don't make them feel bad or weak about feeling a certain way, and don't tell them to get a hold of themselves and get on with life. Avoid saying things like, "Come on, don't be like this. All this is part of life, so just cheer up!" Or "I'm tired of your behavior. Just stop thinking about it and move on with life." Or "Stop crying. I think you are overdoing it. Don't be a weakling."  Such statements can only make things worse for the person.

Can your organization help a distressed employee?
As a colleague, you could direct them to reach out to your organization's EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a service that organizations make available to all their employees in order to help them deal with some of the emotional and logistical challenges of life. 

Some EAPs give employees and their family members free access to short-term solution-focused mental health support, as well as support for information around various daily living and work life challenges. 

All these services guarantee confidentiality, except in the cases of a risk of harm to oneself or others. Employees need not fear disclosure to their organizations or their managers. And they may reach out and access these services for any kind of distress they face, whether related to their work life or their personal life. 

My organization does not have an EAP. What should I do?
Managers can refer their employees to a counseling agency or a counseling psychologist. This would usually be at the employees' own cost. Another thing every colleague can do is take a proactive stance by offering unconditional and non-judgemental support. You may also offer to accompany a distressed colleague to the psychologist in case they are hesitant or unable to go alone. 

Additionally, you may suggest that your colleague call a helpline.

With inputs from Maullika Sharma, clinical head at Workplace Options.