Stressed colleagues need bags of support if they are to manage their life and workload successfully. And that's where you come in, says Harriet Swain, but beware of falling into the sympathy trap
They think they're stressed! You'd like to see them deal with your workload, teenage kids, mortgage repayments, looming book deadline and now colleagues throwing wobblies. You've told them to get on with it - like you.
Not many listening skills there then. One of the most important things you can do if a colleague is stressed is to listen and acknowledge the situation, says Michelle Tytherleigh, a research fellow at Bath University, who has researched stress among academics.
Better still, you should approach them before they come to you. "People are frightened of talking about it and often it is a case of recognising that someone may be showing stressful behaviours and bringing it to their attention," Tytherleigh says. She says it is important to intervene before it reaches crisis point.
Les McMinn, head of the University Counselling Centre at Surrey University and past chair of the Heads of University Counselling Services, says don't worry that a colleague might explode if you point out their problem. "You aren't going to make it any worse," he says. "And the individual will probably be quite pleased."
He says you need to ask whether they want to talk about it - and then gently tell them where they can get help, either within the university or outside. "Again, you have nothing to lose," he says. "At least you have reminded them of the possibilities there are."
Dave Berger, past chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, says you should treat any communication sensitively and have your discussion in a private place. Tytherleigh says one of the biggest moderators of stress is social support, so you need to show colleagues that you are there for them. You also need to reassure them that if they admit to problems, this will not be held against them.
Managers need to think about what is going on in their employees' lives, she says. "Think of them as human beings as well as being employees.
Encourage them to bring issues up and show that you have an open perspective." Tytherleigh says it is important to recognise the problems everyone has in achieving a work-life balance. "You have to acknowledge this and not condemn people for it because it is part of being a human being."
Tytherleigh's research has shown that a significant source of stress for employees is the feeling that there is little commitment to them from managers. McMinn advises helping them to establish why they are feeling the way they do and trying to pinpoint exactly what issues are causing stress.
You need to establish how much of the problem is work-related - in which case you should encourage them to speak to their line manager or to human resources - and how much is related to their home life.
"Often work is a great place for acting out what is going on outside,"
McMinn says. On the other hand, if the situation looks complicated, the best thing to do is pass the person on to more appropriate sources of help.
"Amateur counselling is not a brilliant idea," he says. "We all dabble in it, but if you get into complex stuff you aren't trained to manage that. Know your limits."
Berger says that when the stressed individual is perceived as a danger to themselves or to others you will have to involve a third party and work out a strategy. He warns that it can be damaging for people to feel that others are talking about them behind their backs so he advises speaking to the person concerned first and keeping a record of what is said.
Stephen Palmer, professor of psychology at City University, warns against falling into the sympathy trap, agreeing that the bosses are bastards rather than trying to support your colleague in doing something about it.
There may well be practical action you can take, and the best thing to do is ask, McMinn says. You may need to ease their workload for a while or encourage them to take time off. There may be a particular project that they cannot handle. "Sometimes that conversation itself can be quite helpful because it can give the person involved possibilities," he says.
Palmer says that often you need to help someone to be more assertive about refusing to take on work. "Why don't they say 'no'?" he asks. "As a colleague, you can talk them through this."
Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, says an employer has a duty of care towards employees, including not putting them in situations that may damage their health. If problems arise, managers are obliged to conduct a risk assessment of whether an employee's situation is stressful or not and to identify possible solutions.
But he says employees also have a responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act to look after their own health and to draw it to the attention of managers if they have concerns. He says the stressed person should write a log of what they are doing to establish why it causes them stress. He advises finding out whether others are suffering, too.
Managers are obliged to set out in writing what they are doing to alleviate the situation, or to bring it to the attention of a senior manager if they feel there is nothing they can do because of limited resources.
All the research on stress in the workplace shows that employees with supportive peers and managers suffer from less stress than those without, Palmer says. "From a preventive point of view, it would be good to have a working environment where people can be good to each other and give people time."
Health and Safety Executive advice on work-related stress, www.hse.gov.uk/stress/index.htm
Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, which has published guidance on preventing and tackling stress at work, www.ucea.ac.uk
Get a Life: Moody to Mellow , by Stephen Palmer and Christine Wilding, Hodder, 2005.
Establish the root cause of the problem
Try to find solutions
Know when to contact others and who they should be
Make sure they take a lunchbreak