Your usually dependable colleague is missing deadlines, failing to get his work done, disappearing for long periods of time, or suddenly prone to outbursts and other erratic behavior. You may wonder if something serious is going on. Could it be anxiety, a mental illness like depression, or a mood disorder? How do you address what’s happening — and should you? How can you be a caring colleague without trying to play the role of psychologist?
What the Experts Say
It’s very likely that you work with someone who has a mental health issue. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five Americans experiences mental illness in any given year. And because most conditions are moderate and can be treated effectively, people who are afflicted still go to the office. “In our society, people work through illnesses. They show up when they have the flu and when they’re depressed,” says Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. “Many people who suffer from a diagnosable condition lead productive lives. They do that by coming to terms with what’s going on and treating it,” says Anna Ranieri, a licensed therapist, executive coach, and coauthor of How Can I Help? Not all people get help, however, and it may be that your colleague has an “undetected, undiagnosed, or untreated mental health issue,” explains McKee. If you suspect she might be suffering from a mental condition and it’s affecting your work, here’s some advice.
Don’t make knee-jerk diagnoses
“It’s human nature to try to find a pattern and label it,” says Ranieri, but a lot of people jump to the conclusion that something’s wrong before they have all the facts. “Most of us aren’t trained to diagnose someone.” And our speculations are often misguided. “When we see someone acting outside of the norm — erratic behavior, big mood swings, missing deadlines, not showing up to work — we often make judgments, assuming it’s a mental health issue when it may be that someone’s just different,” says McKee. You can test the waters a bit to see if perhaps this is just the person’s way of working. Ranieri suggests you say something like, “I usually keep in touch frequently about a project and I notice that there are times when you’re out of reach. How can we best work together so that we’re on the same page?” You may find out that there is no emotional issue and that the other person just has a different style. Don’t feel like you have to label every behavior you don’t understand.
“A person can be a caring colleague without being an amateur psychologist,” says Ranieri. However, if your coworker doesn’t give you an explanation, or you find that he is “habitually violating the norm over and over and you’ve determined that it’s not a cultural or perspective issue, you might wonder if something more serious is going on,” says McKee.
Look at your own behavior
Sometimes one of the best signs that something serious is going on with a colleague is whether her behavior is affecting the way others conduct themselves around the office. Emotions are contagious. “A good clue is that the people around the individual are spinning. Relationships are broken or people who normally don’t fight are having disagreements,” explains McKee. “You may start to feel down, especially when you’re with the person. Or perhaps you’re usually calm and you find yourself more volatile. We catch the emotional tone of the other person.”
Know the limits of your relationship
If the clues add up and you suspect your colleague might be struggling with anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue, first think about whether you’re the right person to say anything. “Part of the decision on how to handle it is understanding your relationship,” says Ranieri. “If you have a close friendship with your coworker, then this is likely something you can bring up.” But if you don’t, think carefully about what you want your role to be. As a manager, if the person’s behavior is affecting her or others’ work, you have an obligation to say something. (More on that below.) If you’re a peer or a direct report, and you don’t consider the person a friend, then it’s probably not your place to address it. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer guidance if your colleague asks for it, but just be cognizant that you’re not overstepping boundaries.
Make an observation
If you decide to broach the subject, don’t come out and ask, “Are you depressed? Are you having some mental health problems?” The individual may not be ready or willing to talk about it. Instead, focus on the work and the impact his behavior is having on you and others. Make an observation like, “We’ve been trying to get this project done and it’s been hard with you out of the office.” Then, “give the person the opportunity to respond and share with you what’s going on. You may learn that he’s having a tough time at home, has an elderly parent who’s ill, or he may say, ‘I’m having trouble getting the energy to get to work every day,’” says Ranieri. If you’re good friends, you can ask, “Are you all right? Is there anything I can to do help?” advises McKee. Be sure to follow the person’s lead. If he opens up, let him decide how much to tell you. If she says, “I’m just having a difficult time and I can’t really go into it now,” then don’t push.
One of the most helpful things you can do for someone struggling with a mental health issue is to listen. If your colleague decides to open up about “temporary problems or long-term psychological issues,” just sitting down and hearing them out “can be beneficial to them,” says Ranieri. “It helps to know that people recognize the condition but are not judging them for having it.” And this may be all you do for the colleague. “You’re not giving advice. You can offer your own experience if it’s relevant — ‘I went through a hard time and this is what I did’ — but you’re not telling them what to do and you’re not making it all about you,” she says.
When to talk to someone else
Generally, you want to keep your observations and discussions confidential. But there are two situations in which you may want to enlist the help of others. The first is when the “behavior is so unpredictable and frightening that you’re worried they might be putting themselves or others at danger,” says Ranieri. The second is when you believe talking to the person directly would put you at risk. Perhaps you’re worried about his reaction, or she’s your boss and you worry it will change your relationship. “
“That’s where you might talk with HR” or the person’s manager if you feel the third party will handle it appropriately and confidentially, Ranieri says. Express your concern in terms of the work — for example: “There’s behavior I don’t understand and it’s having a negative impact on me and my ability to get my work done.” This can be hard to do, of course. “There’s a cultural taboo about being a snitch,” says McKee. “But if you’re at risk of failing at your job, or the environment is becoming toxic, it’s your responsibility to go to someone who can help.” Besides, don’t think of it as tattling. You’re trying to help. “If we suspect that there’s a real problem, shouldn’t we try to get them the support they need?” she says.
You also have to protect yourself from any negative consequences. If you fear the person’s behavior will put your job or reputation at risk, McKee suggests documenting what’s happening. Write down what you’ve done — emails you’ve sent, conversations you’ve had, requests you’ve made. “These situations can come back to haunt you if you’re not careful about it. Sometimes it’s cut and dry: ‘She didn’t show up to the meeting again.’ But also document what might seem off to you: ‘She yelled at a meeting,’” advises McKee.
Put up boundaries if necessary
There can be downsides to offering help. “You can’t become a de facto therapist,” McKee warns. “It’s fine to have a conversation but you need to be ready to steer the person toward professional help if that’s what they need.” Ranieri agrees: If the person keeps coming back to you for advice and support, “Cordially say, ‘Thanks for relaying this to me, but I’m not an expert. I’m rooting for you but I’m not the person to delve into that.’”
Create a caring culture
If you’re a manager, focus on fostering a safe environment where people can talk about these sorts of issues. “Most managers run away screaming from conversations around health, mental health, and emotional wellbeing,” says McKee. But you shouldn’t. If people aren’t getting their work done or are preventing others from doing so, you have a responsibility to do something about it. You can talk to the person, explain the impact on the work, and ask how you might help. You might refer the person to your employee assistance program or ask your HR department for help.
If you’ve struggled with a mental health issue in the past or have a family member who has, consider talking about it at work, if and only if you feel safe. “Most people don’t want to say ‘I suffer from depression’ because there’s a shame about psychological issues,” Ranieri acknowledges, but the more you talk openly about it, the more you build awareness and take away the stigma, paving the way for others to get help. For more information on how you can create a mentally healthy workplace, check out this workplace toolkit from NAMI NYC.
Principles to Remember
Make observations about how your work is being impacted and let the person respond
Listen in a nonjudgmental way
Get support from others if you feel the person is in danger or if you feel your job is at risk
Jump to conclusions about what’s going on — it’s not always a mental health issue
Push your colleague to share personal details — what she wants to share is up to her
Become the person’s de facto therapist; point the person to professional help
Case study: Make the person feel safe
Several years ago, when Barbara Ricci was a managing director at UBS, she suspected something was going on with her longtime client, George (not his real name). When they worked closely together on his firm’s investment portfolio, talked on the phone, and dined out, she noticed a pattern of behavior: he would act differently at certain points — talk more loudly, more quickly — and because of her work as the president of the board at the New York City affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and her relationship with a brother who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Barbara thought George might be having manic episodes. Initially, this didn’t concern her much because it didn’t affect their work and she assumed he was managing his condition with medication. But she did talk openly about her own family experience and tried to give him “a safe space to confide,” she recalls.
But then things got more serious. “I noticed uncharacteristic trading patterns in his portfolio. He wasn’t taking prudent risk,” she explains. Since George was running billions of dollars and making large, “inappropriate” transactions, Barbara felt she had to say something.
She called George away from the trading desk and asked him if he was OK. He waved off her question and said he had no idea what she was talking about. Although she’d wanted to deal with him directly, offering him help and resources, she quickly realized how difficult it would be to get through to him now, so she went to his manager, a person she trusted to do the right thing. “He was very open-minded, and I knew he’d handle the situation appropriately and keep our conversation confidential.”
George’s manager was caught off guard — he hadn’t realized his employee was struggling. But he talked to him, explaining that he seemed stressed out and should take the rest of the week off. Barbara doesn’t know what George did that week but, after a brief respite, he came back to his position full-time and behaved in a much more stable way. “He stayed in that role for a number of years and continued to be very good at his job,” Barbara reports.
Eventually he left and took another job but, years later, he called Barbara to say that he was struggling again and remembered that she’d talked to him about mental health issues in the past. She welcomed the opportunity to offer advice and resources because he’d asked for them. “I was happy to be able to help,” she says.