Listening skills for supporting colleagues

Stressed colleagues need your listening ear when facing life and workload challenges, but avoid the sympathy trap

February 7, 2008

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,” 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 you need to ask whether your colleague wants to talk about it and then tell him or her where to 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. You need to show colleagues that you are there for them, and 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. 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.”

If the situation looks complicated, McMinn says, 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 him or herself or to others you will have to involve a third party and work out a strategy. 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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 is good to have a working environment where people can be good to each other and give people time.”

Further information

Health and Safety Executive advice on work-related stress

Universities and Colleges Employers' Association has published guidance on preventing and tackling

Get a Life: Moody to Mellow, by Stephen Palmer and Christine Wilding, Hodder, 2005.

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