I'm worried about one of my colleagues

A colleague isn't doing very well. Raising it with them is exactly the right thing to do. These conversation tips will help.

If one of your colleagues is suffering burnout, stress or private worries, everyone's working atmosphere may be affected. Broaching problems sooner rather than later is important for cooperation, especially at work. If you have noticed that a member of staff, for several weeks:

  • has been working more slowly or making more mistakes
  • often can't concentrate or reacts irritably
  • suddenly calls in sick a lot, or starts getting in late
  • has somehow changed, looking sad or tired out
  • is piling up overtime even though the workload hasn't changed

– then as soon as you have a bad feeling about them or find yourself preoccupied by the situation in your leisure time, you should raise the subject with them.

Talking helps

There's no-one and nowhere that is safe from mental strains. They can affect anyone. If difficult situations last a long time, they can lead to illness. That impairs the quality of our work or the working atmosphere, or leads to people signing off sick. You can help prevent it coming to that. Your colleague may find it easier to take the first step by talking to you rather than their line manager. So why not take the first step yourself?

Talking makes solutions possible

In the working environment many people feel inhibited about raising the subject of mental problems. You don't want to invade your colleague's space. But raising the subject with them shows that they are appreciated and important to you. The sooner one of their colleagues reacts, the more recoverable the situation becomes.

Talking reduces stress and gives us strength

Talking alone won't make anyone's problems go away. You shouldn't expect everything to change right after your conversation. However, having someone who listens and is interested and sympathetic brings relief and hope. It does you good.

You don't need to solve the problems

Anxiety about having to solve the problems they bring up puts many people off having a conversation. You can't change your colleague's situation at work, or their home circumstances. Your sympathetic ear and your interest give the help that's needed.

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«Most of the times it is just about listening»

Becky & Jo, collegues as police officers

Start a conversation

Consider your own mood

Don't try to start the conversation unless you're feeling at ease and confident.

Pick a suitable time

An in-depth conversation takes time, so don't start it if either of you has to be somewhere in ten minutes' time. Sometimes it helps to ask when the person has time for a conversation.

There's something I'd like to have a quiet word with you about. When would be a good time?

Find a suitable place

where you won't be disturbed and you both feel at ease. Many people find it easier to talk about difficult things while walking. A stroll at lunchtime could be a good opportunity.

Shall we go somewhere for lunch, or take a stroll together after work?

It's OK if it doesn't work

The other person may well not respond to your invitation to talk. Don't take it personally. Maybe they're not in the mood, or perhaps they need time to pluck up courage. Try again later.

OK, I understand. Would some other time suit you better?

It's not hard to get advice on the best way forward. Here are a few addresses and services.

The conversation

You might start like this:

I'm worried about you. You've been looking a bit down lately.

I'm concerned that you don't come to our get-togethers anymore. Are things not going well for you?

I hear you're very worried about your daughter. I imagine that must be a terrible strain. How are you coping?

Listening is what matters most

Many people are afraid of not being able to find the right words. But this underestimates the benefits of simply having somebody sympathetic to talk to. Your starting point for the conversation should be that you want to understand how your colleague is feeling. Think up good questions rather than looking for answers.

Do you still look forward to getting to work in the morning?

What would have to change for you to feel better?

You've just taken on our colleague Y's cases as well. How is that working out for you?

Show sympathy

It feels good to be understood. You might express sympathy by saying:

I can understand what a strain that is.

I'm sorry things are going so badly for you.

Silences are not a problem

Everybody sometimes has trouble finding words when talking about difficult situations. Don't be in a hurry to end pauses and silences. To get the conversation going again, it sometimes helps to say:

At the moment I don't know what to say either."

Know your own limitations

If you get the impression that the other person needs more help, you might say:

I don't know how we can move on with this either.

Have you ever thought of talking to a team leader or someone from the HR department?

I think it may be something serious. Have you talked to a doctor or a psychologist?

Don't offer to give more help unless you want to provide it

Your attention and readiness to listen are a great help to the other person. If that's as far as it goes, that's OK too. If you feel like it, you can give practical help – like fetching your colleague from his desk to go to lunch. Or you could just stick to listening:

You can certainly talk to me about it again if you like.

You should avoid

Don't play the blame game

Remarks like «Why don't you just pull yourself together?» or «We all get stressed» aren't helpful. Mental illnesses are never a matter of willpower.

No advice or hints

We have a tendency to want to offer solutions. Remarks like «Next time, just be more relaxed about it» make sufferers feel under pressure or that they haven't been listened to properly. Listen carefully. If you're specifically asked what you would advise, you can refer to inputs for mental health or to this website.

Don't talk about your own problems

Sometimes, with the best of intentions – to show understanding and sympathy – we talk about our own problems. This makes the other person feel you're not taking them seriously. But if you yourself have been through a very similar situation, then share your experience.

Don't deliver any diagnoses

Even if you suspect the other person is suffering from a specific illness, leave diagnosis to a specialist – otherwise the other person will feel that you've pinned a label on him.

No belittlement

Don't say «Everything will be fine again soon» or «This will pass». Remarks like this make sufferers feel that they're not being taken seriously.

No pressure

You should go into the conversation with the attitude that you only want to know what the other person wants to tell you. If the other person breaks off the conversation, don't try to prolong it. You can try again another time.

End a conversation

Sometimes the conversation can just all get too much. These words will help you to find a good way to end it.

I don't think we're getting anywhere at the moment. Is it OK with you if we talk about something else?

I don't know what to say. Let's have a coffee. We can talk more about it another time.

After the conversation

Whatever you hear, keep it to yourself

If professional or private matters came up in the conversation, keep them to yourself. If you need to talk to somebody else about them, do so in private – and don't name names. If you feel that outside help is required, though – if somebody is suicidal, for example – then you should call 143 and talk to Die Dargebotene Hand / La Main Tendue, which also advises those who are close to people in crisis.

Make sure you're all right

It will do nobody any good if you fall ill yourself. Don't simply accept the transfer of your colleague's work from his desk to yours. Take time for your own needs and interests. The following ideas will help.

If you want to know more about how to talk about mental stress and problems, you'll find further inspiration in the conversational tips «I'm worried about someone in my private life».

Brochure on mental health in the workplace with more tips and contacts.

Download (PDF, 7 pages)