3 Signs Your Co-Worker May Be Secretly Struggling Right Now

People everywhere are buckling under the stress of the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how to tell if it's happening to a colleague.

You may have a co-worker who is silently struggling right now. The global coronavirus pandemic is still affecting millions of people and has completely upended all our old ways of living and working, leading to a lot of extra stress we may not even be able to fully acknowledge.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top job-related stressors during the pandemic include:

  • Concern about the risk of being exposed to the virus at work
  • Taking care of personal and family needs while working
  • Managing a different workload
  • Lack of access to the tools and equipment needed to perform your job
  • Feelings that you are not contributing enough to work or guilt about not being on the front line
  • Uncertainty about the future of your workplace and/or employment
  • Learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties
  • Adapting to a different workspace and/or work schedule

In other words, there could be many reasons your co-worker is off their game right now. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist and executive coach, said the pandemic makes it harder for workers to disconnect from their jobs, and this is leading to burnout.

“I’m hearing a lot of fatigue,” she said. “People feel very tired, [they are] feeling a sense of disconnection from all of their roles, including parenting, and are just feeling not great at anything right now.”

Different colleagues are experiencing different realities with regard to social isolation and caretaking responsibilities. “What works for you right now is not likely to be what is going to work for somebody else,” said Liane Davey, a team effectiveness adviser and author of “The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track.”

Both experts agreed it is good to watch out for changes in behavior that signal a colleague may need support. Here are some marked changes in behavior to watch out for:

1. Your colleague is more distracted and absent.

Orbé-Austin said to look for unusual ways your colleague is showing up in the workspace.

“You can see them overly flustered in ways you’re not used to typically seeing them,” Orbé-Austin said. “They’re missing appointments or missing events, or they just feel scattered in a way that doesn’t seem normative for them.”

2. They’re moodier from the stress.

Everyone has good days and bad days, but a marked change in behavior like edginess, frustration and irritability are signs to watch out for.

“Stress can show up as your co-worker seeming irritable, on edge, or even defensive. They may overly focus on worries and concerns, such as all the reasons why a project isn’t going well,” said licensed social worker and executive coach Melody Wilding.

3. They’re tired or overwhelmed from difficulty sleeping or pandemic anxiety.

“Just because someone looks like they are doing OK doesn’t mean that they are.”

- Psychologist Lisa Orbé-Austin

When people become worried about losing their jobs, as millions of Americans already have, they may prioritize work performance over other basic needs, making signs of struggle more difficult to notice.

“Some people have to prioritize their work, because it could be a salient identity component, but it also could be because they are afraid to lose the job,” said Orbé-Austin. “Just because someone looks like they are doing OK doesn’t mean that they are.”

Your co-worker may seem generally fine but may actually be grappling with stress in ways you don’t see. Changes in sleeping or eating patterns, feeling overwhelmed or burned out, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating are common signs that the stress of the pandemic is having an effect, according to the CDC.

Orbé-Austin said that if you notice one person struggling, it’s “likely they are the tip of the iceberg, and they are just representative of all the team struggling in some way.”

When you do reach out, don’t assume. Do ask questions about how people are working.

Assuming you know how people are doing or how they feel will not lead to a productive conversation and can put people on the defensive. But checking in is helpful.

“Human connection has such an amazing stress buffering effect,” Davey said.

When you do reach out, Davey said, the conversation can focus on seeking to understand how the other person is working during the pandemic and what interruptions they face. These questions might include, “What do you think is the most critical piece of this [assignment]?” “What is your most precious hour of the day and what do you want to use it on?” and “What are you worried is going to fall off your plate?”

Davey said these questions help your peer or teammate think deliberately about the most important tasks and signal your own flexibility about how work should get done during the pandemic.

If you are a manager, Lara Hogan, a leadership coach and author of “Resilient Management,” recommends a weekly check-in to see what the folks on your team need.

Instead of broadly asking what an employee needs, managers should get more specific and offer two to three options. In a blog post with advice for managers during emergencies, Hogan wrote that this might sound like, “Hey, so it looks like this ticket still hasn’t been finished yet. We still need it done by Friday, but obviously things are bananas right now for everyone, so I’m eager to hear your thoughts: Would it be more helpful if a) we paired on it together, b) you took an extra 24 hours on it, or c) something else?”

Wilding advised proceeding gently if you are a manager checking in. “Start by asking, ‘How are you adjusting?’ or ‘How are you taking care of yourself?’” she said.

“If there is something frustrating or concerning about a colleague’s performance, deal with it sooner rather than later.”

Davey also suggests framing your concern as a neutral observation rather than an accusation. For example, if your concern is a colleague’s repeated absence from team gatherings, you could say something like, “Hey, you didn’t say anything on the call, or you didn’t share your perspective on this presentation, and I wasn’t sure how to interpret your silence, so what are you thinking?”

If you are a manager, your job is to model vulnerability and accountability, so that direct reports know that “struggle is accepted, welcomed, understood in our relationship as long as it comes with a sense that you own this, you’re going to figure it out, it’s not just you giving up and letting your team down,” Davey said.

You can do this by sharing your own vulnerabilities and how you are working on them, with language like, “Here’s what I’ve been struggling with and here is how I’m figuring out how to deliver it.”

If there is something frustrating or concerning about a colleague’s performance, deal with it sooner rather than later. Davey said some of her clients say, “I can’t deal with this right now because we’re not [working] face-to-face.” But this inaction would be a mistake because small conflicts can become bigger frustrations that affect how you interact with a co-worker.

“Don’t let things build up,” Davey said. “You need to deal with things sooner while they are really small, while you are able to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on there?’”