Strategies to support a colleague in distress

Distress is not a weakness, says Dr Crowe.

Working in any environment – from offices to worksites to hospitals – can expose staff to situations that are traumatic or distressing.

When people see a colleague who is upset, the first reaction is usually to help them. But there are right and wrong ways to go about this. For example, when a colleague cries at work, the first reaction from their manager can often be to send them home for the rest of the day in the hope they feel better. But RBWH Staff Wellbeing Specialist Dr Liz Crowe says this is not necessarily the best course of action.

Here are Dr Crowe’s 12 tips to support a workmate in distress.

How to support a distressed colleague

  1. Do not panic. Sadness, grief, and tears are all a part of life. We do not panic when people laugh.
  2. It is not your job to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ their distress. Providing a caring and empathetic ear without judgement can be very healing in itself. Connect with them as a priority.
  3. Provide a safe and calm presence, somewhere private if possible. Assure the person that the conversation is private. Then please respect and keep their privacy.
  4. While there may be a place for humour, please do not use it as your first option. This can make people feel unheard and alone. If you know the person well than humour may be a wonderful balm at some point in the conversation.
  5. Distress is not weakness.
  6. Distress is not not coping. People can be very sad and be resilient and be coping really well and these things can happen at the same time.
  7. Distress is not a mental health issue. Sometimes people cry easily and that is okay. Sometimes people are distressed about things that are very distressing! Grief, illness, death, fear, relationship breakdown, stress, fatigue, things from work, things outside of work.
  8. Silence is okay.
  9. Please do not send everyone who is distressed home. Often people get home and then feel distressed and humiliated. It is also important for us to role model that distress, and all ranges of emotion are normal. It is very important to remember that home is not a safe place for everyone. People are frequently far safer here with their colleagues who can support them through their distress than home alone or home in an unsafe environment.
  10. Try and listen twice as much as you speak.
  11. If you are really concerned think about engaging with an employee assistance service or other staff services or ringing a next of kin with the person and with their consent. People in a crisis may not be able to ring and organise appointments for themselves.
  12. If you believe the person to be unsafe, escalate immediately with the consent of the person. Do not leave the person unattended. If you need to take the person to an emergency department, please try and do this recognising their ongoing need for confidentiality.

Dr Crowe is the co-host of the RBWH nursing podcast ‘5 Things’.

2024-05-01T16:17:14+10:0029 April 2024|
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