Advice & News

August 18, 2022

Helping Colleagues Navigate Stressful Times

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Stress at work is inevitable. We all experience it at times, whether we're overwhelmed with our workload or trouble at home is bleeding into our work hours. Particularly in higher ed, there may be fraught times of the year depending on your department or focus area. That stress can bubble over, especially in a post-pandemic world where employees are working longer and harder than ever.

"This moment in time continues to be one of heightened stress and uncertainty for many across the country, including employees throughout higher education," said Ralph A. Gigliotti, PhD, assistant vice president for strategic programs, Office of University Strategy and director, Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University.

Chances are, one or more of the colleagues you interact with daily is struggling. You may observe signs of their stress and burnout, or they may even approach you about their troubles, and like many higher ed professionals, you'll want to answer the call for help.

"Many of us feel committed to serving others, whether it be the students we teach, the faculty or staff with whom we collaborate, or the members of the broader public with whom we interact," said Gigliotti.

But how can you effectively help a colleague through a tough time? Consider these four tips:

Make Yourself Available
"An example I always give in my training is that you might be heading into a meeting in five minutes -- an important meeting, you're very busy -- and somebody comes up to you and says, 'actually have you got time to have a word about something I'm struggling with or something that's troubling me?'" said Mike O'Hara, host of the Happy Employee Podcast, on an episode entitled The Power of Listening.

He cautions against rushing through that conversation and instead recommends offering a window of time later in the day when you have time to truly listen -- when you aren't thinking about other tasks, looking at your phone, typing an email, etc.

You may do more harm than good if you try to fulfill your colleague's request when you're crunched for time. You want to convey that you care enough to give them your undivided attention.

Focus on Listening Over Advising
When it comes time for that meeting, giving your colleague space to talk is important.

"We have a tendency to want to support others by immediately providing advice," Gigliotti shared, "but as much of the research on this subject might suggest, being a source of support for one's colleague and offering to deeply listen may prove to be more effective strategies."

Sometimes the best option is silence, O'Hara said on the Happy Employee Podcast.

"Leaping in and trying to fill that awkward space and trying to put words into that person's mouth can have a negative outcome because that person who has drummed up the courage to speak doesn't actually get a chance to voice their concerns," he explained.

Avoid the temptation to immediately fix the problem. Instead, try asking your colleague an open-ended question and then just wait. The silence may be awkward, but it's effective in getting others to open up and fill that space.

O'Hara also recommends using body language and affirmations to show you're listening and receptive. Nodding at appropriate times and keeping a neutral posture can make a huge difference.

Keep It Productive
If you're meeting with a close colleague and you've experienced similar frustrations, things can quickly spiral into a gripe session. Don't let the conversation devolve. Instead, remind them that they aren't alone and focus on helping them work through the stress.

Sometimes listening, empathizing, and validating your colleague's experience may be enough. Other times may call for you to roll up your sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty details of the problem. For example, if they're overwhelmed with their workload, providing productive support may involve helping them break down bigger projects into smaller, actionable items so they can make progress.

Gigliotti recommends posing "questions that could invite the colleague to think about ways of best approaching the period of difficulty. These conversations, if centered around one's primary goals, can help others in prioritizing which of their many tasks require immediate attention."

Sometimes, when stress takes over, we just need a little redirection or an outside perspective to bring things back into focus.

Set Boundaries
Offering help is a noble undertaking, but it's important to set clear boundaries for yourself. Stress can be contagious, and you may not have the capacity to take on someone else's work.

"It can be tempting to offer to take on the workload of a co-worker who is struggling, but that's not always the best idea," Natalie Fell, HR & business specialist at Step By Step Business. "You'll want to balance being supportive while making sure it doesn't affect your own workload or performance."

Evaluate your capacity honestly before you offer to take on some of their tasks. Then, if you find that you simply cannot take on anything else, let them know and perhaps encourage them to have a conversation with their supervisor.

Certain times of the year can be particularly stressful in higher education, so if you see someone struggling, lend an ear when you have adequate time, keep the conversation productive, and offer support within reason. Your empathy toward others may serve your struggling co-worker, but it also contributes to a positive team culture.

"Many of the most high-performing units tend to have a culture where colleagues look out for one another," Gigliotti said. "This culture of respect, civility, and collaboration is especially critical during a period of heightened instability and uncertainty for many."

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