Because life is full of bumps in the road, often employees must navigate personal challenges and work. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, divorce, caregiving demands, or illness, when someone in your office is facing tough times, the signs are typically visible. And coworkers may rally around the individual with comforting words, gestures of kindness, and other means of help.
But in remote and hybrid worlds, where people aren’t usually in the same place at the same time, the signs can be harder to spot and the support harder to give. With so many employees onboarded remotely over the past year and a half, you may not feel as if you know your colleagues well enough to offer a personal word of support or other gesture.
“I think that’s really challenging because people really do need support from colleagues and from the work environment that they have. You might need some time off to deal with X, Y, or Z,” says Meredith Prescott, founder of Prescott Therapy and Wellness in New York City. “The culture now is that people are so independent, they’re not privy to what other people are going through.” But there are still ways you can tune in to your coworkers’ needs and help them when they’re going through tough times.
The first step is to be more intentional about looking for behavioral changes, says workplace expert Adrian Gostick, coauthor of The Best Team Wins: The New Science of Performance. “I talked to a woman recently who said, ‘I haven’t had a hug in three months.’ And we’re just not aware of that,” he says. Focus a bit more on others’ behavior and if you notice signs of fatigue, withdrawal, irritability, or other factors, it may be time to pay attention to what’s going on.
It’s also a good idea for leaders to check on their employees by setting aside “one-on-one time each month to connect with their employees, and for the calls to really be driven and guided by their employees,” Gostick says. “Leave it as an open dialogue, where you’ll let the person you’re talking to guide and direct what they want to cover and focus on.” If they feel safe, they may confide challenges with which they need help.
Normalize and empathize
When people go through something dramatic in their lives like the death of a loved one or a divorce, they often feel alone. One of the best things you can do for your coworker is to reassure them that they’re not, Gostick says, noting “We have all gone through something like this. It’s normal to feel this way.” When you normalize such situations, you help remove feelings of shame, which can be obstacles for the person who needs to reach out for help.
Ask what they need
It may not be helpful to assume that you know what your colleague needs because your assumptions may be wrong. Instead, ask how you can help them, Prescott recommends. “Everyone wants help differently,” she says. One person might want assistance with a project, while another person might need a shoulder to cry on or help finding solutions. If you jump to conclusions and offer the wrong kind of help, your good intentions might fall flat.
Rally the inner circle
Even if you’re not particularly close to your coworker, encourage them to connect with people who are, says Adam Bandelli, managing director of consulting firm Bandelli & Associates and author of What Every Leader Needs: The 10 Universal and Indisputable Competencies of Leadership Effectiveness. “I think people need to be intentional about connecting with and spending time with those people who matter most,” he says. The isolation that many have experienced during the pandemic has been detrimental to mental health in many cases.
“Encourage them to find that support group to find that inner circle of people that they can connect with, even if it’s outside of work, whether it’s family, friends, acquaintances, people in our community,” Bandelli adds. And if you do have a tight-knit band of coworkers, consider making time to get together via Zoom or even in person if that’s a possibility to comfort your work friend and encourage self-care.
Another good way to help—with the coworker’s permission—is to be a research assistant. Help find information about resources or providers, Prescott suggests. Taking on that labor and providing a ready list of providers or information can alleviate the overwhelming task of finding professional help and resources.
Comfort the way you can
Whether it’s taking something off a coworker’s plate or sitting in on a meeting to give them a break or simply listening and letting them talk, there are many ways you can help others navigate life’s challenges, even when you’re working remotely, Bandelli says. And, if you have access to the individual’s home address, you can still make common gestures like sending a card or flowers. The key is to let your colleague take the lead and then follow through, which builds trust and relationships over time.