Helping a struggling colleague at Christmas time

15 December 2016

Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year but a Deakin University workplace health expert says there are many practical ways to help a struggling colleague get through the silly season.

Dr Andrew Noblet, a Professor in Organisational Behaviour and co-Director of Deakin’s Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing, explained that there are a range of stressors that can take a toll on mental health at this time of year.

“As Christmas and the New Year roll around, it’s natural to review the past 12 months and take stock of what you’ve achieved,” Dr Noblet said.

“If you feel that you haven’t achieved the individual and team goals you set for yourself at the start of the year, or not completed tasks to the standard you would have liked, this can create enormous disappointment and distress.

“Added to that is the pressure of getting things done before you head off on summer holidays. These deadlines with limited time-frames and limited resources can be a major source of stress particularly if everyone around you is in the same boat.

“And let’s not forget the financial and emotional stress associated with a family Christmas! Buying presents, planning events, and navigating family politics can add to existing work stress. And for families who have lost a loved one, especially during the preceding year, it can be a particularly difficult time.”

Dr Noblet said that while some stress is expected at this time of year, if you’ve noticed significant changes in a colleague over an extended period, it’s worth checking if there’s something more serious going on.

“If you feel comfortable approaching a colleague who you think may be struggling, then it’s certainly worth doing. But it’s very important to pick the right moment for what could be a difficult conversation,” Dr Noblet said.

“This is where it really helps to know your colleague and when they’re more likely to be receptive and more positive about having that conversation. Are they more upbeat and talkative in the mornings? Are they more likely to open up over a coffee?

“Location is important, too. Would they prefer to leave the workplace – go to a local café, for example – or stay in the office where it may draw less attention to themselves and the situation?

“Initiate the conversation in a sensitive way that is non-judgmental and non-blaming. Begin by talking about the changes that you’ve noticed such as “you seem a bit quieter, more anxious, less engaged than you normally are”. Let them know that you’re concerned and would like to listen if there’s something they’d like to talk about.

“If they do say they’re struggling, the goal is to encourage them to seek appropriate professional help. This could be via an employee assistance provider – if the organisation has one – or you could suggest they see their GP or visit a specialist mental health website like beyondblue to find out more about the symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.”

Dr Noblet, an expert in employee wellbeing in the workplace, said there are a number of areas that organisations should focus on to provide a healthy working environment all year round, not just at Christmas.

“A critical step in creating healthier and less stressful working conditions is ensuring that the environments in which people work promote rather than undermine wellbeing,” Dr Noblet said.

“This means taking into account the volume and complexity of people’s workloads, ensuring that they have the information, guidance and other support for completing required tasks, giving them a say in how work is done and how it could be done better, and rewarding and recognising people in a way that is both fair and motivating.

“We also need to recognise that people do experience challenging situations in their jobs and they need to be provided with the appropriate tools to manage and cope with those demands. In some instances this might mean offering training and development opportunities that can help employees become more resilient and able to bounce back from psychologically and emotionally difficult situations.

“Mental health literacy training can also be particularly helpful for managers and other staff with people management responsibilities. In these sessions, people managers learn how to spot the symptoms of depression and anxiety, how to approach someone who may be struggling, and what sort of advice and guidance they should provide. This training can be invaluable in improving both staff wellbeing and managers’ communication skills.”

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