Worried about a colleague behaving differently to how they normally would? Perhaps there’s been in a change in their mood or appearance. Or they’re turning up to work late and holding back in meetings instead of always being on time and sharing their thoughts.
We spend a large portion of our waking hours with our colleagues, so you’re in a unique position to notice when someone you work with appears out of sorts.
It can be helpful to check in and ask if they’re okay, explains SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read.
“Mental health and mental illness are everybody's business,” she says. “Sometimes we might think, 'This is outside of my remit', 'I don't have any expertise in this area' or 'If I get it wrong, I might make it worse?’ and so we say nothing. But this can mean people may further withdraw and are less likely to seek help.”
Here’s how to check in and ask if your colleague is okay.
Carefully choose the time and place
To avoid your colleague feeling ambushed or judged, choose an appropriate time and place for the conversation. “You don't want anyone to feel like this conversation is public fodder when it could be highly sensitive and personal,” Read says.
You might ask your colleague to hang back after a meeting or catch them in the break room when no one else is around. If you both work from home regularly, it may be more practical to chat over the phone, email or a team chat app.
“Once upon a time, we would have said face-to-face is best, but the world's changed, and it would be a shame to never have the conversation if you never meet in person,” Read says. “That would be a missed opportunity.”
Focus on observable changes
An estimated 71% of people say they’ve checked in on their colleagues when they observed them struggling at work, according to research for SEEK, and Read says this is a helpful approach.
She explains it’s important to enquire about observable changes in behaviour, mood, appearance and thinking – in other words, the things that are noticeable.
“This gives you a factual base from which to start that’s less intimidating as you’re focusing on a change that may indicate someone is struggling,” Read says.
“If someone has been typically punctual and engaged in the workplace, and now you’re noticing they're often late and no longer speaking up and sharing ideas, that's an observable change.
“If someone who's typically had a lot of pride in their appearance now looks like they haven't groomed themselves in an appropriate way for the workplace, that’s an observable change.”
Check in a second time
Among people who suspected someone was struggling at work but didn’t ask if they were okay, feeling like their help wasn’t wanted (47%) was one of the main reasons.
Read says it can take two or more attempts for people to open up, especially if they’re caught off guard at your first attempt.
“A one-off enquiry is typically not enough – you often need to circle back a second time,” she says. “You might say, ‘If now's not a good time, when might be a better time to connect?’ That gives them the option to say, ‘Maybe Friday’. A second attempt is appropriate for most people.”
Avoid diagnosing the problem
It can be tempting to assign meaning to your colleague’s change in behaviour – that their lateness is a sign of stress, or their low mood indicates depression – when you know nothing other than what you’ve observed. “All you know is you've seen something change,” Read says.
Likewise, Read says, it’s important to avoid self-diagnosing your colleague through the lens of your own experiences. If you or someone you know showed similar behaviours and received a mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t mean your colleague will, too.
Instead, checking in with your colleague is about expressing support. “You're not there to advise or give solutions, and you're certainly not there to diagnose,” Read says. “What you're really trying to do is facilitate the next steps for them.”
Facilitate the next steps
The most effective way to facilitate the next steps for your colleague is by asking open-ended questions.
“You can ask what they need more or less of at the moment. Maybe they need to modify their workload, speak to their manager, get more sleep, get help with childcare or check in with their GP. You're trying to get them to problem-solve,” Read says.
“If they're able to answer your initial question, you could then ask: ‘What do you need from me in order to make that happen?’ It's about facilitating their next steps, so they feel they're driving the process with your support.”
Checking in with your colleague about their mental health can feel awkward, but it’s important to remember you’re not expected to diagnose the problem or provide concrete solutions. Simply sharing what you’ve noticed and offering support shows them you care and can make a big difference.
For more resources to help you check in on the people around you or talk about mental health, visit The Mental Health Foundation.
Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published September 2023.