When a colleague is facing a health scare, it can be stressful not only for them, but for the entire office — and especially for those co-workers who are close to them. An alarming diagnosis or worsening prognosis — of their own or of a family member — can lead to unexpected changes in workflow that can feel daunting to navigate.
What’s the most respectful way to reach out to a colleague in need and communicate our support? And how can we help take work off their plate without overloading our own? Here are five expert-backed tips to help you make the most of a tough situation.
If in doubt, reach out
It may not be clear what we’re supposed to know about each other’s lives outside the office, but when it comes to one’s health, it’s always important to reach out, says Jessica Methot, Ph.D., professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. Phrase your outreach with empathy and sensitivity, for instance: “I heard a bit about what you’re going through. I fully respect your privacy, but I’d like to hear more if you’d like to talk.” Show them you care about their well-being and are eager to help them through this difficult time.
Personalize your support
Steer clear of vague, blanket statements like “let me know if you need anything.” Instead, extend small, practical gestures, perhaps offering to bring them lunch or be their out-of-office point of contact. “Whatever it is, offering someone something specific doesn’t just provide a tangible bit of help, but it also signals that you put yourself in their shoes and have given it some thought,” Alan Benson, Ph.D., professor of work and organizations at University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, tells Thrive.
Make it about them
When speaking with your colleague, “don’t assume too much about their scenario, or be too quick to relate your own personal circumstances,” cautions Benson. A healthier approach he advises is active listening. This involves emotional labeling (which helps validate their emotions), followed by an open-ended question, says Benson. For example, you could say, “That sounds incredibly frustrating. What are you thinking about for next steps?” Because you’ve framed it from your perspective, it also allows your coworker to correct you if you misunderstood something about what they’re going through, Benson says.
Keep them in the loop if they’re out of the office
Taking time off for appointments, treatment, or a leave of absence can be incredibly isolating, Methot explains. Keeping your colleague in the loop can make a meaningful difference and help them feel like they’re still an active member of the team. And when they return, champion them for exciting opportunities. Managers may assume, though well-intentioned, that they’ll want a reduced workload or lower priority assignments, but this risks devaluing their contributions and further stigmatizing their experience, especially if they were out for a mental health matter, Methot advises.
If you’re stressed or struggling, speak up with compassionate directness
Helping cover a co-worker’s responsibilities in their time of need can be good for our own well-being — but not if we overextend ourselves. “This simple act of giving is directly linked to [the giver’s] happiness and thriving,” says Methot. But if we’re stretched too thin, not only are we missing out on these psychological benefits, but we’re hindering the quality of our help as well. If you’re struggling with your new workload, practice compassionate directness: Surface your stress with your manager, and offer some thoughts on how they can help you help your co-worker.
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