Workplace Doctor: What you can do to support a stressed colleague

Too much stress with too little recovery, or too much recovery with too little stress can both significantly impact performance.

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I am writing on behalf of a colleague who recently confided to me that they felt they were suffering mentally as a result of stress at work and some personal problems at home. I know this person quite well and I have noticed a definite change it their ability at work and in their general disposition. Should I involve our manager, should I try to convince my colleague to mention it to the manager or should I just ignore it and hope it sorts itself out? I’m really at a loss as to what to do.

JD, Abu Dhabi

Your level of concern for your colleague’s well-being is commendable, and he/she is fortunate to have you in their corner.

Many people would have experienced work-related stress at some point during their careers, and it's not always for the worse. In fact, some level of stress is important for both personal growth and performance at work. However there is a critical interplay between stress and recovery which needs to be consciously managed. Too much stress with too little recovery, or too much recovery with too little stress, can both significantly affect performance.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, which your colleague may be experiencing due to both their work and personal challenges, is often experienced when there is little or no opportunity for recovery. This can lead to a dramatic impact on one’s physical and emotional well-being, and can manifest in the way of headaches, sleep disruptions and lack of concentration. If prolonged, it can also escalate to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, a weaker immune system and heart disease.

Recruitment agency Robert Half UAE, has revealed that workplace burnout is an issue for nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of businesses in the UAE, with employee stress resulting in a performance drain. Excessive workloads, conflicting demands, constant interruptions, unclear expectations and restructuring concerns are some of the contributing factors to workplace stress.


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The reality is that it is difficult, if not impossible to avoid stress at work, and as already mentioned total stress protection is also not desirable. Realistically, the best way to manage stress and to enhance energy for sustained performance, particularly during challenging times, is to adopt some essential strategies to build personal resilience.

Dr Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute has studied and worked with corporate executives for more than two decades, and highlights the primary mechanisms for effective physical recovery: the importance of effective eating – making sure your nutritional intake is light and frequent. Hydration – drinking a glass of water every 30 to 60 minutes. Movement during the working day – getting up and walking about every 90 to 120 minutes, as well as regular cardiovascular and resistance exercise, and finally making sure you get seven to eibght hours of quality sleep. Without these basic building blocks, our physical bodies are unable to effectively recover and rejuvenate in order to face the demands of a challenging day.

So what can you do to support your colleague?

Firstly, raise their awareness of these essential physical recovery mechanisms mentioned above. They may seem obvious and common sense, but your colleague will need your encouragement to integrate these into their daily life.

Secondly it is important to respect the confidentiality the person has placed in you. It is definitely worth encouraging him/her to seek support at work, either by talking to their manager if they have a good relationship, or to someone in HR if they feel safe and comfortable to do so, and if acute, you may also want to suggest they seek professional help.  Stress and mental issues should be treated in the same way as physical issues that impact someone at work. Good support structures should ideally be in place at most organisations, where the theme of workplace wellbeing has become an important priority across the UAE Government.

On a personal level, consider how you may be able to support the person by helping to identify what their stressors are and what options they may have available to better manage them.

Doctor’s Prescription:

As someone who has taken the time to listen to your colleague and who has their best interest at heart, you are already providing valuable support. Let them know that you are there for them and that you would like to help, and it is equally important that you know your own boundaries in what you are able to offer and how much you can be involved.

Yolande Basson is an executive coach and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education – Middle East