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Supporting Colleagues in the Workplace | How to Help

Lakshmi Hutchinson profile image

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Friends elbow-bumping

When I was at my first full-time job after college, I got a call one morning that my father had suddenly died. I had only been in the office a couple of months and I still hadn’t really gotten to know my co-workers. I told only my boss, and then I rushed out.

When I came back to the office the following week, one of my co-workers with whom I exchanged an occasional “good morning” came to my cubicle and said, “You probably have people that you’re closer with that you can talk to, but I want you to know that I’m here if you need me. I know what it’s like to lose a parent.” Those empathetic words from someone I hardly knew brought me lots of comfort. 

Today, with the continuing pandemic and the new world of remote work, it’s important that we emphasize supporting colleagues in the workplace, especially when we’re not seeing folks in the office. There are simple things you can do to reach out to co-workers if they are dealing with personal or professional difficulties, whether it’s just being there for someone who is grieving a loss, or offering help to a colleague who has been let go.

Checking in (especially when remote)

When it seems like every day brings more Zoom calls and Slack messages, it can be easy to get complacent in terms of supporting colleagues. But it’s important to separate the more personal check-ins from your standard work interactions.

  • Ask how they’re doing. Consider your colleagues’ home lives and what particular challenges they may be facing. Do they live alone, have family, or live with roommates? If you’re not sure, now may be a good time to ask (if it doesn’t feel too personal). Also, if you share what you might be struggling with personally or professionally, it can make it easier for the other person to open up as well. 
  • Don’t wait until they come to you. If you sense someone is having a hard time, be proactive. If a team member is consistently turning in work late, not showing up for meetings, or seems unfocused, make the time to speak to them privately. There could be a way you can pitch in, reassign work, or otherwise find a solution together.
  • If you’re a manager, model empathy for your team. If you lead with kindness, your team will feel more comfortable in being open and honest about what they’re dealing with. Share self-care resources and encourage team members to check in on each other.

Supporting colleagues dealing with a loss

When a co-worker has lost a loved one, there are thoughtful ways that you can acknowledge that loss and offer your support. If you’re unsure of how to approach them or what to say and do, here are some suggestions:

  • Offer your condolences and let them know that you missed them. Unless they initiate further conversation about their loss, it’s best to keep it simple. Everyone handles grief differently and you should allow them space to open up if they choose to.
  • Adjust your approach based on the remote work environment. If you’re not in the office together, it might seem harder to approach a grieving co-worker and offer support. An email or instant message might be the best option, so you can start a private conversation without putting them on the spot. 
  • Think of concrete ways that you can be of help. Rather than a vague “let me know if you need anything,” you could offer to help catch them up on work that they missed. Let them know what support you can offer from a distance, whether it’s dropping off a meal or just making yourself available to talk. 

Helping a co-worker who was laid off

Losing a job, particularly during the pandemic, can be a scary situation. Any kind of support you offer can help.

  • Ask what type of position they are looking for next. Your former co-worker might not want to go straight into the same role at a different organization. Find out what they are hoping to do next so that you can be of greater help, particularly if you will be serving as a reference.
  • Let them know how you can help with their search. You can keep an eye out for positions that could be a good fit, forward their resume to your professional contacts, and introduce them to people in your network who could assist them. (And be sure to direct them to Idealist’s job seeker resources!)
  • Check in regularly with your former co-worker. This is especially important now, as pandemic-related loneliness can be made worse by losing daily interactions with work friends. Set up times to chat and catch up, if only for a virtual coffee break.

Above all, never underestimate the positive impact that your words and actions can have when it comes to supporting colleagues in the workplace.


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Lakshmi Hutchinson profile image

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

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