We are in this together: supporting a colleague returning to work after taking time out with a mental health problem

22 November 2017

We are in this together: supporting a colleague returning to work after taking time out with a mental health problem


Someone you work with may have taken time out to deal with a mental health problem, like depression or anxiety. They might have been experiencing panic attacks or dealing with a distressing life event, such as a marriage ending. Unfortunately, there is stigma attached to admitting human frailty – especially in the workplace.  You can’t fix anyone else’s problem for them but there are a few simple things you can do to help ease their workplace transition.


Welcome them back and make sure you are inclusive

Don’t hesitate to talk to them out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Be inclusive by inviting them out for coffee and making sure they are included in workplace social activities.


Let them know you are there to support them

Chat with your colleague in private and ask how they are going. Be clear they don’t have to answer any questions that make them feel uncomfortable, and that you just want to offer a supportive ear. Ask if there is anything you can do to help them readjust.


Don’t make assumptions about their working capacity  

Unless they say otherwise, assume your colleague will work with the same competency they always have. Treating your colleague differently will only exacerbate any stigma feelings.


Keep communication consistent 

It’s also important to talk to them in the same way, so they know your respect hasn’t changed and your working relationship is secure. They are the same person – they are just dealing with, or recovering from, an issue that’s less physically obvious than a broken arm or injured back.


How do you know if your colleague is having difficulty readjusting?

They may become withdrawn, irritable, nervous or distracted. They may have trouble concentrating, lose interest in work or start working excessive hours. It’s not always necessary to know whether someone has a specific problem. All you need to do is be sensitive and supportive when your colleague seems troubled.


If your colleague expresses difficulty – don’t diagnose, just listen and express your concern

It’s not your place to diagnose anyone. Respect how the other person interprets their situation. Don’t try to cure them or find answers to their problems; you just have to listen. Show you have heard what they have said and express empathy by saying things like: “You’re having panic attacks? I’m sorry to hear that. That must be awful”.


Talk about wellbeing in general

Maintaining a supportive, healthy workplace is beneficial for everyone. Try making general wellbeing conversations a normal part of your working day. Talk about activities you find personally beneficial – like lunch time walks, listening to music or a healthy diet. Talk about things you do to unwind and relax. Try asking your colleague if there is anything they do that helps them. Ask if they go to health or relaxation classes, and what kind of things they enjoy doing outside of work.


Offer practical support

Set the workplace example by supporting your colleague. If your colleague is avoiding alcohol or caffeine, support them in challenging situations. Try ordering a non-alcoholic drink during ‘work drinks’ or making a shared pot of herbal tea, instead of coffee.


Encourage them to seek advice and support 

If your colleague is experiencing difficulty, and they are not comfortable speaking to you, encourage them to talk to someone else and seek support outside the workplace; talking to their GP is a good place to start.


What if they don’t want help?  

Ask them what their reasons are for not wanting help. If you find they are based on mistaken beliefs or fears, address their concerns and normalise the situation – everyone needs help sometimes. If they still don’t want to seek help, respect their wishes unless you believe they are at risk of harming themselves or others. Tell them you will be there to talk with them if they change their mind in the future.


Things to avoid:

  • if your colleague talks to you about difficulties they may be having, avoid over simplifying their situation by saying things like, “just cheer up and get on with it”;
  • try not to trivialise the depth of their feelings by saying things like “everyone feels that way sometimes, it will pass”;
  • don’t assume their problems will go away on their own; and
  • try not to share information with other people you work with that has been given to you in confidence.


Set appropriate boundaries 

Offering support doesn’t mean you are taking on responsibility for someone else. That isn’t fair on you and it’s not helpful for the other person either.  Set boundaries with them. If necessary, let them know you’re happy to listen but can’t be available all the time. Make sure you are supported with the right resources and information and seek help yourself, if you feel overburdened.