How (and Why) to Help a Colleague in Distress

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Last week, your uber-productive colleague was at the top of her game. This week she’s making silly mistakes, sobbing in the bathroom, and worrying she’ll be fired. We’ve all been there. If you want a healthier (and more productive) work culture, learn how to help a stressed-out colleague get back on track fast.

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At InHerSight, we know pay-it-forward empathy in the office is more than just a nice thing to practice. According to our data from hundreds of thousands of women, feeling good about your coworkers is one of the top three “must haves” for women at work. When colleagues support one another, everyone benefits from good morale, camaraderie, and collaboration. Plus, that support translates into more problem-solving power and a better bottom line for the company. It’s a win-win all around.

What’s more, you’re practicing a powerful leadership core competency. Highly successful leaders understand the value of emotional leadership in building strong relationships, and they treat others with empathy and compassion. So, hone your workplace compassion skills and invest in your career at the same time. Just follow these three steps to deep-six workplace panic

1. Actively listen

In a private setting, invite your colleague to talk about whatever is stressing her (or him!) out. It’s important not to judge what gets said, offer your own opinions, or try to solve any problems. Just listen, maintain eye contact, and occasionally ask clarifying questions to show that you understand. Pay attention to your colleague’s emotions as much as her words and acknowledge her feelings.

Why does this help? Whether you’re confiding in a caring friend, colleague, or professional counselor, the act of talking about feelings helps us to understand ourselves better and to feel connected to others.

(Want more information about how to listen empathetically? Follow’s 5 Tips for Empathetic Listening.)

2. Help your colleague regain emotional balance and perspective

After the initial panicked and emotionally charged burst of disclosure, your colleague will begin to speak more slowly and may circle back to earlier points of concern. Keep listening and offer affirming feedback as her emotional and physiological response to stress calms down.

In the swirl of workplace panic, our fears of what might happen get exaggerated until they are out of proportion with reality. It’s our innate fight-or-flight response on overdrive. You can help your colleague get it all back into perspective.

Is she fixated on worst-case scenarios? Take turns making up the most outrageous possible outcomes until you both laugh at the absurdity. Helping her to experience humor and some laughter will boost her mood and calm her stress even more, according to wellness coach Elizabeth Scott.

Resist the urge to push solutions on your colleague, unless she asks for your input. Remember: your role is to offer support, not to take over.

3. Tap into the power of encouragement

The next step is the simplest one: Give your colleague encouragement to tackle work challenges with confidence. Encouragement during tough times helps employees realize their importance, serves as a source of inspiration, and builds loyalty. Remind your coworker of past successes and praise her competence. She will be better able to shake off the mini-meltdown.

If your colleague seems embarrassed now that she’s more grounded, remind her that stress overwhelms everyone at times. It’s human, it’s natural, and it passes. Give reassurance that the conversation will be held in confidence, as that is what good colleagues do for one another. And ask her to invest in other colleagues in the same way when they need help. (The next person to need a supportive shoulder could be you!)

Forbes columnist David K. Williams writes that creating a supportive company culture requires everyone, from leadership to the most junior employee, to see one another as human beings. When we do this, it is easier to take mistakes or failures in stride and get back on track.

Feel empowered to invest in your colleagues and your company. Emotional leadership and compassion in the workplace are skills that can be learned and honed with practice, and the rewards are far-reaching.

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