Are your colleagues really ok? How to ask and offer support

We’re experiencing an unprecedented health crisis with a tsunami of economic and social consequences. Australians quickly adapted to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 with some losing jobs, some businesses and jobs going into hibernation, and many others adapting to working from home, some while also juggling children who were at home learning.

The adrenalin of rapid reaction got us through those first few weeks, and while some enjoyed the changes, many were overwhelmed. Working from home gave some more time for exercise, for cooking and time with family. For others, it has been exceptionally lonely, leading to fatigue and exacerbating mental health issues.

Medical experts predict we may have to live with this virus for some time to come. Life returning to what we’re used to is starting to look a long way off, if possible at all. We’re still living with uncertainty and for many there is trauma, grief and distress.

If you’ve noticed a colleague or employee is struggling, you may want to offer support, yet are concerned about saying the wrong thing, or offending the person in raising your observations. Often this can mean that we don’t connect with, or offer support to, someone who may really need it. The following simple approach may help.


Choose a time when neither of you are rushed and find a private and discreet place to have a chat. From there, use this three-step conversation framework to have a curious, non-judgemental conversation.


Describe what you have noticed which has led to your concerns. Keep your observations objective and measurable – you should not be attempting to give an analysis or diagnosis but simply be stating your own judgements and opinions. Outline the observed change in their behaviour or simply say, “I’ve noticed…” Focus on their behaviour, and not your interpretation of what this behaviour might mean.


Asking someone “Have you noticed…?” or “Is that true for you?” or “Is there something going on with that?” gives them an opportunity to connect with you if they choose to do so. It helps them to clarify if you are on the right track, or if there is some other reason for the change in their behaviour.

STEP 3. Shhhh….ZIP IT!

The final step in the process then involves you not saying anything at all. Simply: Zip It and listen! Many people find this the most difficult stage of the process, but it is vital that you let the person find, organise and relay their thoughts to you, if they so choose. You sometimes need to be silent for twice as long as you think is socially appropriate in order to allow them to catch up with their thoughts, and to decide what they are willing and comfortable to disclose in this situation.

Your goal is not to diagnose or therapise the person, but rather to talk about your observations and get their feedback. What you’ve observed may have nothing to do with mental health issues, however, if you’ve observed behaviours of concern and you raise them respectfully with the person, and they are experiencing mental health issues, they may feel more comfortable disclosing these to you. You can then come to a shared understanding. You may be the only person in their life who has respectfully reached out to offer support.

How we do the third step is important. Think about a time when you were distressed. Did you seek support only to have someone jump in with a solution, or look for silver linings? Was this helpful?

Hearing someone’s angst may feel distressing and uncomfortable. We want to reassure them and help them feel better about the situation so we try to rush them to a resolution. We want to tell them it’ll be ok – that this is an opportunity in disguise. This can risk the person not feeling heard – their reaction not being validated. In doing so, we risk disconnecting with them at a time they may need our support most. Before opportunities can be seen to arise out of a challenging situation, there are many emotions to be processed, possibly grief, anxiety, panic, worry and distress.

To help support someone, instead of glossing over their emotional reaction or rushing them towards feeling positive, there are some simple things you can do to listen loudly:


Firstly, acknowledge that whatever they’ve told you (fear, sadness, overwhelm, etc.) is real for them. Acknowledge that their reaction is true and valid. Hear it. Don’t try to tell them they’re overreacting or that it’s not that bad. You can’t control how someone else feels.


Express empathy for their feelings. Tell them you’re sorry for their distress; or sorry they’re sad; that you’re sorry they are feeling overwhelmed. You are not telling them they are right or wrong for how they feel, simply empathising that how they feel is real for them and therefore important.


Allow the time for them to explore the options which suit them. Encourage them not to make rash decisions though bear in mind that some pragmatics might be worth considering. Some people will need support with the pragmatics of what to do immediately.

When they’re ready to explore their options for moving forward, hold that space with them and discuss a range of possibilities. Consider the pros and cons of each option. If they’re struggling to identify any for themselves, consider offering three options you can identify, and see what, if anything, resonates for them.


When they’re ready to test out some of the options, plan for action with them. They may or may not need your support with this. Engage as appropriate for the boundaries of your relationship, respecting their decisions.

This approach is about being respectful and acknowledging the individual – allowing them to go through the emotions they are feeling and work through their options in their own time and way, while offering support where you can. To listen and validate that what they’re experiencing is real for them is the best support you can give.


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