How To Support A Coworker Going Through A Tough Time

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Working Americans often face workplace stress or difficulty balancing their personal and professional lives. You might notice that a coworker is having new challenges at work, potentially due to their mental or physical health. In some cases, a coworker might confide in you about their difficulties. Knowing how to approach your coworkers professionally and helpfully can be a step toward growing a healthy workplace environment and making new connections with colleagues. For more personalized guidance and insight, consider speaking with a licensed mental health professional. 

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The benefits of supporting a coworker 

Regardless of your field, if you work with other people, making more profound connections with your coworkers may be beneficial. 

Studies show that coworker support can lead to increased altruistic behaviors in the company, which may enhance employee productivity and positive attitudes at work. Caring about your colleagues may offer opportunities to build friendships and stronger working alliances.

When a coworker is struggling, they may experience a sense of loneliness or withdraw from their regular social patterns. Reaching out to someone who seems upset, sick, or unwell can be a way to show them that they’re not alone and that they have people on their side. It could be possible that they have experienced a loss in their life or are struggling to build healthy connections at home. Knowing someone noticed them may help them open up and potentially consider reaching out for help.

How to know if a coworker is experiencing a difficult moment 

It can be challenging to know what someone else is going through, especially because many workplace cultures value professionalism, which may lead some people to not reach out to coworkers out of fear of stigma or shame. It could also be possible that someone is living with a severe mental illness and may struggle to express these challenges to their coworkers or supervisors. 

Signs someone might be struggling with stress or a mental or physical illness could include the following: 

  • Withdrawal from work social activities, especially if they used to attend 
  • A change in interest in socialization 
  • A lack of productivity on a team 
  • A pessimistic outlook at work 
  • Coming into shifts exhausted or with a forlorn expression 
  • Avoiding taking initiative 
  • A short fuse 
  • Making comments about “giving up” or “not being able to take it anymore” 
  • Crying at work 
  • Changes in the way they follow workplace policies or rules 
  • Communicating about changes in appetite or sleep patterns  
  • Difficulty laughing, joking, or having fun with coworkers
  • Sitting alone on breaks
  • Frequently forgetting important information 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

If you notice these signs, or your coworker expresses they’re going through a difficult moment, there are a few steps you might take to support them. 

Ways to support a coworker 

Below are some common ways coworkers may support each other through difficult moments. When supporting your coworkers, try not to make assumptions, and use active listening to fully understand what they’re going through and whether they want your support. 

Ask how you can help 

Before making a decision, asking your coworker how you can help might be beneficial. If you’re unsure whether they’re having a hard time, you might use phrases like the following: 

  • “I noticed you seem more tired lately. Is there a way I can help?”
  • “Is there something going on? I’d like to help you if I can.”
  • “We’ve missed you at the monthly work get-together. Is there anything going on right now that I can support you with?” 

Your coworker can deny your offer of support. If they do, you might let them know you’re available anytime to talk or help, if this offer is within your boundaries. You might also tell them they’re not alone and that you care about them, which could provide comfort and companionship to someone who has been isolating themselves. 

A man looks upset while sitting hunched over on a chair as he talks to his female therapist during a therapy session.
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Offer to take a shift

In some cases, work can become a more significant stressor due to someone’s personal life. Coming into work may take time away from responsibilities or relaxation, which can lead to burnout, a considerable risk factor in the development of depressive disorders. If you know that a coworker has been taking on a significant workload and has been looking for some time off, consider offering to take one or two of their shifts to give them time to focus on themselves. 

Identify the root of the challenge 

Knowing the root of your coworkers' challenges before offering support might be helpful. If they are communicating with you, try to learn more about whether they’re experiencing stress, a mental health challenge, or a physical health change. Some people may also struggle during life transitions like a divorce, loss of a family member, breakup, or job change. Listen to your coworkers without judgment and remind them they’re not alone in experiencing these difficulties. 

Validate their emotions

Some people may not be seeking solutions or methods to fix their problems. Instead, they might benefit from hearing validating statements that can show someone is listening and seeing their emotions. Below are a few statements you might use: 

  • “I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for you.” 
  • “It sounds like you’re experiencing a lot of stress.”
  • “That’s so much to take on right now.”
  • “I feel for you.”
  • “I hear you.”
  • “Your emotions make sense in this situation.” 
  • “I can imagine how much energy that must take.” 
  • “I’m proud of you for coming to work despite these challenges.” 
  • “You are strong and resilient, and I admire you.” 
  • “I empathize with your loss.” 
  • “I’m here to listen.” 
  • “Feel free to vent if you need to.” 
  • “You’re not alone.” 

Using empathetic and validating statements may help your coworker understand they’re not alone and that you see them where they’re at. Some people may not appreciate unwarranted advice or attempts to fix their problems, as they may prefer to work through them on their own, but they may still appreciate that others are in their corner. 

Compliment them 

When you see someone struggling at work, consider giving them compliments and reminding them of their value in the workplace. Even if you cannot offer more intensive support related to their challenges, positivity can be a beneficial way to help them cope. When complimenting them, avoid complimenting their appearance. Instead, you might compliment their personality, work ethic, projects, creativity, strength, or problem-solving abilities. 

Understand your limits and remain professional 

Work is generally a professional environment, which means you may be unable to offer all the support you want. If you are both focused on your jobs, there may not be much time to discuss personal challenges. In these cases, know your limits. Remain focused on your schedule and duties while considering how you might professionally create space for your coworker to receive support. If you are friends outside of work, you might consider having a more personal conversation at dinner or on a hike. If you are not close with the coworker, use more professional strategies like giving compliments, offering project support, or asking how to help. 

Set boundaries 

If a coworker is asking for more support than you can give, kindly and professionally let them know you must focus on your work, but you care about what they’re going through and want them to be able to find guidance. You might recommend specific resources, such as a company-sponsored mental health line, a crisis line, or an anonymous reporting system that has been put in place at your job. 

If you know of community support options that someone in your life has used, bring these up in a positive light, noting that these resources have been helpful for people you know and love and may be beneficial for your coworker as well. 

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Ask for professional advice

Navigating workplace relationships can be tricky. If you’re looking for more support on how to talk to a coworker, make friendships at work, or navigate your mental health, it might be helpful to speak to a therapist. A counselor can guide you through specific exercises, such as role-playing and cognitive restructuring, to help you positively impact all areas of life, including self-care. 

If you are too busy to attend in-person sessions, you might also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, which can be attended at any time of day from any location with an internet connection, including on a work break. In addition, online platforms frequently offer tools like journaling prompts and worksheets, which may guide you through difficult decisions. 

Research shows that online therapy can be effective in reducing burnout that may be related to depression and anxiety. In a 2022 study, an online therapy intervention was found effective at reducing the risk of stress-related illness. It was approximately 26% more effective than the control group, which consisted of employees who had not received the intervention. 


Supporting coworkers can be challenging if you’re not sure what to say. Being empathetic, validating their experiences, and asking how you can help may be a few options for offering guidance. However, if your mental health is also struggling, it may be helpful to first reach out to a licensed professional to receive advice on your situation and learn how to best offer support to others. Consider talking to a provider online or in your area to get started.

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