How to support a Stressed Coworker

Roger is crying at his desk because he’s having a horrible day at work (read Roger’s story).

Stressed Coworker

What would you do if you saw Roger? What would you say?

His coworkers didn’t know what to do.

Earlier, they were all together in a team meeting. Roger was clearly stressed. The group lollygagged through the agenda like the Roger’s tension didn't exist. They didn’t reach out to support him.

We avoid such potentially awkward scenarios. We fear that a sincere “how are you?”  will digress into an hour-long venting session. Half your meeting agenda will remain unaddressed. Your office must now budget for more tissues…

The challenge: we feel torn between supporting the stressed coworker and finishing our work.

We want to support without becoming their therapist. We want to be friendly, while being professional. We want to help - but don’t know what to say. So, we bury the intention.

Here’s what to do if you meet Roger.

  • Shoot him a private message – say what you appreciate about him and how his work has helped you and the company. Little things uplift.
  • Don’t solve his problems – listen - listening is one of the most effective ways to support people. Research supports it.
  • Offer to take them to lunch or go for a walk - good company is a cure.
  • Brainstorm solutions - If the conversation bends towards how to cope, ask for his *permission* to share your ideas/thoughts. He may say yes. He may say no. Unsolicited advice can feel defeating. Let him decide.

Here’s what to do if you are Roger’s boss.

  1. Tailor your work feedback to his emotional state - more on this in a future post (subscribe here).
  2. Narrow the scope of his work to be realistic to his emotional state. Otherwise, he’ll burn out and both of you will lose.
  3. Be radically candid - Have a direct and caring conversation about his participation. Allow him to opt out of meetings if he is going to be very disengaged. You might worry that your team will make a habit over missing work over small stresses, but if you trust them, this strategy will make your trust grow stronger. Kim Scott talks about how to be a kick ass boss without losing your humanity.