Many of us are under a lot of pressure at work and at home, from dealing with increasingly difficult customers to ongoing financial worries. In tough times, we need to look out for each other, as well as ourselves. Maybe you’ve noticed changes in a colleague’s behaviour that you’re worried about. 

“If you notice someone struggling, ask yourself what’s changed for them,” says Andrea Woodside, wellbeing training lead at the Retail Trust. Do they seem quieter (or even more ‘up’) than usual? Are they less focussed than they normally are? Have you noticed that they’ve recently appeared tired, worried, or anxious?” 

“Any change from their ‘normal’ may indicate that reaching out could be helpful but be mindful: everyone can have a bad day. It’s when the changes are apparent over a number of days or weeks that the person might benefit from a listening ear.” 

If you want to help someone you think might be going through a tough time, it can be hard to work out the best way to reach out. But before you approach them to offer support, bear in mind that your role is to listen – not to offer advice. Well-intentioned as it might be, you could accidentally make things worse. 

“Those of us who work in retail tend to be natural fixers – we like to sort out problems,” Andrea explains. “This is useful at work, but when we try to fix other people’s personal issues, we can get in over our heads. Keeping it simple and safe means recognising that someone might benefit from external support and signposting accordingly. 

“If you approach the conversation with an open and non-judgemental mind, maintain the other person’s right to confidentiality, and avoid giving advice of any kind, you’ll be demonstrating best practice.” 

Stick to these six rules, and you won’t go far wrong. 

1. Don’t jump to conclusions 

Don’t be tempted to diagnose your colleagues with specific issues, such as a stress reaction, or depression. “Your role is simply to recognise that they might benefit from specialist support, whether this be via the GP, a counsellor, or someone who can assist with practical issues such as debt,” Andrea says. “People can struggle for all sorts of reasons – and struggle doesn’t always equate to a mental health condition.” 

2. Start an open conversation 

Telling someone you’re worried about them might cause them to feel defensive, or even attacked. The best approach is simply to ask them how they are. “Open questions are useful – although try avoiding the word ‘why,’ as it can sound judgemental,” says Andrea. “Recognise that it might take a few approaches over time for them to feel confident and comfortable in talking to you.” 

3. Avoid problem-solving 

If you want to support your colleague, it’s crucial to remember that you’re not there to solve their problems, or even to give advice, beyond suggesting where they might consider looking for help. “You’re acting as a non-judgemental, compassionate listening ear, so you can get a good idea of where best to signpost the person for professional support,” Andrea says. “It’s not passing the buck – it’s the responsible and kind thing to do.” 

4. Choose the right place and time 

Don’t pounce on your colleague as they’re on the way out of the door. “Make sure you have the time for a conversation, and consider the space in which you have the catch-up,” says Andrea. 

5. Don’t share your own issues 

This is often done with the best intentions, to show the other person they’re not alone. “But this will only take the focus off the person who needs help,” Andrea warns. 

6. Approach with kindness 

It might go without saying, but whatever your approach, be sure to be kind. “Kindness isn’t rocket science, it’s rocket fuel,” says Andrea, “and when you start from a place of genuinely wanting to support someone else, you’ll find that the person is more likely to open up to you.”