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How to check in on your mates at work

Before Covid-19, many of us thought that working from home sounded like pure bliss. Now employees all over the world are yearning for chats by the coffee machine and the faint clickety-clack of tapping on keyboards.

With everyone remote, the need for fostering meaningful connection based on mutual respect and care has never been more important. However, these opportunities for connection can feel harder to come by, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation, both of which take a toll on one’s mental health.

According to an ABS survey into the household impacts of COVID-19, 20% of Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in June of last year. Everyone is battling in their own way right now, whether it’s related to health, work, family, finances or a combination of the above.

During these periods of increased worry or distress, we traditionally reach out to the people we know and trust for support. However, many hesitate to check in with their mates at work when they know that they are facing the same challenges. 

In the past, some of us may have created a facade at work where we didn’t openly disclose that we were struggling with something. But now that the transition from our professional to our personal lives is more blurred, it invites us to be more authentic and honest with ourselves and our colleagues.

It can sometimes feel a little awkward or uncomfortable asking a colleague about their mental health. The conventional norms around appropriate workplace conversation have rapidly changed, so it’s completely normal to feel this way. Here are some of our tips for checking in with your mates at work in a purposeful and empathetic way.

Check in with yourself.

Are you in the right headspace to be there for someone if they need your support? If not, then perhaps you can loop in someone else who can help out.

Look for the signs

Before you go ahead in asking how someone might be doing, it helps to pay attention to any signs. If you notice that someone has been consistently down or not their usual selves, these could be the only signs that you need to ask them if they’re doing okay and if there’s anything you can help out with. Other signs include low morale, fatigue, multiple sick days, sadness, uncharacteristically poor work output and anxiety.

Be specific.

Instead of just asking your coworker how they are feeling, ask about something that you have observed or something that they’ve shared with you in the past. Video calls give us an insight into people’s personal lives, with kids, pets and partners often popping up in the background. For example: “Jenny, how do you feel about the kids going back to school?” Being present, curious and seizing these small opportunities to ask a specific question can demonstrate that you truly value and care about them.

Be vulnerable first.

If you can see that someone is struggling, an effective way to create meaningful connection is by sharing what challenges you’ve been facing first. This humanises the relationship as well as builds trust and shows to the other person that they’re not alone. 

What if they’re not ready to open up?

If your mate doesn’t feel ready to open up after you’ve shared something from your life, you might also consider saying something like “I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet lately, would you like to share what’s happening for you?” Make sure to highlight that you understand things can be difficult to talk about but that you care and you’re here no matter what.

Listen without judgement.

Check your bias at the door and listen to what your friend is saying without judgment. If they share something that you may not necessarily agree with, it might help to acknowledge their point of view or ask a question for them to open up more. With so much disruption to normal life, it’s so important to acknowledge that everyone is going through a lot. Remember, the purpose here is for your colleague to feel heard, validated and understood.

Be proactive in helping them out.

If you suspect that your coworker is battling with something, be proactive and volunteer to take something off their plate. If you also have little bandwidth, perhaps suggest that several team members band together to share the workload around. Not only does this show to your mate that you’re looking out for them, but you’ll also rally the team together with a shared purpose.

What if they say they’re not ok?

As before, simply listen and even reflect back to your mate what they’ve shared with you to show that you’re paying attention and making a genuine effort to understand what they’re going through. You’re not trying to “fix” your colleague’s problem or to offer advice – this is just about being there and sitting with them.

What to do next

Encourage them to seek professional help if they’ve been feeling like this for a while or if they don’t know how to overcome their struggles. After this initial chat, continue to check in with them regularly to see how they’re travelling and to let them know you’re still there for them. 

By checking in, listening and simply being there for your mates at work, you can make a huge difference to their life.

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