How to help a colleague or friend to deal with stress

Often people can become gradually more and more stressed without realising what is happening. Strange though it may seem, you may actually notice the signs of stress in your colleague before he or she does so. The first thing to be aware of is that, given the tendency for stress to be seen as a sign of weakness in an individual, your colleague or friend may not like being told that he or she appears to be under stress. It is therefore important to be tactful, sensitive and supportive in whatever ways you can. If you can quickly and easily get to the point where it is recognised that stress is an issue, you should then be able to sit down and look at how you can support your colleague or friend in dealing with the issues. It can be helpful to look at where the pressures are coming from and how they are being managed. This is likely to give some clues as to what can be changed to reduce levels of stress. However, it is also important to look at support factors. Stress is not simply a matter of how well an individual copes with his or her pressures. Dealing with stress is also an organisational responsibility, and it is therefore important to look at what part the wider organisation can play. For example, does it have a policy on staff care or related matters? If not, is stress covered under its health and safety policy? Gaining support from the organisation is also a matter that needs to be handled sensitively and tactfully. Simply demanding that employers do a better job of supporting their staff may, in the short term at least, actually add to the stress rather than reduce it. In seeking to help your colleague or friend directly, and/or gaining support for him or her, it is important that you should not do anything without the full agreement of the person concerned. It can cause considerable ill-feeling and add to the pressures if you are seen to be doing something behind their back. It does not matter how well meaning you are, this is a risk that you should avoid. If your colleague or friend does not accept that stress is an issue, then you will need to be careful not to push the matter as this, in itself, could add significantly to the stress – for example, by creating additional tensions in what may already be a very tense situation. Sometimes it takes people quite a while to come round to the idea that they are actually suffering from stress. If this is the case, then you should just try to be as supportive as you can in general terms. However, whether the other person concerned recognises or not that stress is an issue, you should make sure that you do not do anything which could be seen to reinforce in any way the notion that stress is a sign of a weak individual. This myth is a pervasive one, and so we have to be very careful not to reinforce it unwittingly.

Dr Neil Thompson                                       

Neil’s website and blog are at

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