Imagine the scenario: your colleague in the classroom next to you has been noticeably quieter recently. They have stopped going to the staff room for lunch, isolating themselves in their classroom and often working late into the evening. Far from being the positive and funny colleague that you are used to, they have become withdrawn, irritable and anti-social. As you pass their classroom one evening on your way home, you pause to ask them how they are and they admit they are struggling and feeling very low. If you were in this situation, what could you do to support them?
Don’t minimise their concerns
The fact they have chosen to confide this to you shows that they are struggling and to them, their concerns are real and demanding. They may have felt like this for some time and talking about it to someone might be quite difficult. Comparing your workload to theirs won’t be helpful here, even if they seemingly have less to worry about than you. Stress is the perception of how much you have on your plate, and to them, it has become unmanageable. You could say ‘It’s OK to feel like that’ or ‘I’m here for you if you want to talk about this’.
Open questions should be used here to prompt them to give more detail e.g. ‘How long have you been feeling like this?’ or ‘What might be making you feel like this?’ This will help your colleague to verbalise their feelings and give you an idea of the severity of their feelings. It might be that there is one particular area that is bothering them or it could be a combination of different issues at work and home. Knowing more about the reasons they are struggling can help you to pinpoint the support they need and the help that can be given.
You should set aside any pre-conceived judgements about the person or situation. It is important that the person feels safe to share their feelings so phrases to show that they are not being judged are really important: ‘I can understand why that might make you feel stressed’ or ‘That’s OK to feel like that’.
If someone is sharing their worries or distress with you, they will want to feel listened to before any advice is given so avoid jumping in with suggestions and ways to solve their problems. Just talking about the problem or their feelings will help that process.
Don’t assume that they want you to solve all of their problems. They may not want a solution or suggestions about mental health support at that time if they are distressed. You could offer support or help with immediate issues that are overwhelming them.
What help could you signpost to them?
You could suggest that a visit to their GP might help if they are feeling like they are unable to cope. In addition, encouraging them to speak to their line manager or HR at school will mean that they can seek additional support. You could offer to go with them to these meetings if it is appropriate to support them.
Keep an eye on them.
Now that you are aware that they are struggling, checking in on them regularly will really help them to know that they have someone who cares. Popping into their classroom at break time, encouraging them to come for lunch in the staff room or even a quick email to say ‘Have a lovely day!’ can be welcome support to them. You might want to arrange a catch up with them after a few days or a week or so to check in with them.
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