My friend is struggling at work. What can I do to help?

Jan 22, 2021

5 mins

My friend is struggling at work. What can I do to help?

We all experience moments when things get complicated at work. Perhaps you have a nightmare boss or a troublesome colleague. Maybe you’re trying to figure out if it’s the right time to leave or your duties are proving brain-numbingly boring.

Whatever the problem, facing professional struggles is common. They happen to the best of us, even our friends. If someone you know opens up about having a tough time at work, how should you react? After all, you don’t want to wade in with the wrong advice and jeopardize your friendship. We spoke to career coaches and work psychologists to find out how to deal with this tricky situation.

How do I react when a friend is having a hard time at work?

It’s tempting to give your opinion on the spot, but according to coach and consultant Hannah Salton, this isn’t a wise move. “Try and resist giving advice immediately,” she said. “Ask open-ended questions and listen to what your friend has to say. Sometimes friends need to vent, and just listening supportively can help.”

As a psychotherapist and coach at The Work Psychologists, Elloa Phoenix Barbour suggests a straightforward approach. “Instead of skirting the issue, it’s usually more helpful to simply ask, ‘What do you need from me?’,” she said. It’s best to show some restraint here: don’t tell your friend what to do. “Most of us simply want to be seen, heard, and understood rather than told how to live our lives.”

Ultimately, caution is key, explains Ros Toynbee, director, and lead coach at The Career Coach. You might think you’re giving good advice, but it could lead to resentment. “Many caring friends in good faith have given what they thought was practical advice, only to be ignored. Or worse, the friend says, ‘You’re right, I should quit!’ and blames you afterward for urging them to leave if it doesn’t work out for them,” she said.

What if your friend pretends everything’s ok at work but you know it’s not?

Do you have the feeling that a friend is putting on a brave face? If you really want to get to the heart of the matter, think carefully about the right time and place to bring up the conversation of work. “Putting them on the spot in a Zoom call probably isn’t kind or effective. Dropping a text to let them know you’re concerned gives them space to reflect and get back to you when they’re ready,” said Phoenix Barbour.

Before you try and coach a friend, consider your motives. “Sometimes a real friend is a person who will name the uncomfortable truth. At other times what a friend really needs is someone to just be by their side while they find their way through challenging times,” she said.

How to offer your support

If your friend is trying to make a big career decision, do you feel you should help? First, it’s important to remain tactful in your approach. This starts with being attentive, explains Phoenix Barbour. “Listen and ask permission to share your opinion, perspective, and any practical help—such as contacts from your network that you can connect them to—and ask them what they need from you,” she said.

What if you get rebuffed? Toynbee suggests following your gut instinct. “Listen with your whole self to all of what is going on for them,” she said. “If you ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ and you get the brush off, ask a second time, ‘How are you feeling really?’ and give her [or him] the time and space to feel her feelings and to talk—if she [or he] wants to. It’s about compassion, not criticism. The last thing they want to hear is, ‘You’ve been complaining you’ll quit your job for two years and you haven’t done it yet. When are you going to quit?’”

There are two exceptions to this rule when you really should look to help, according to Toynbee:

  • “Between friends who are very deeply connected and have asked in the past for the other to be direct with them, to tell them how it is, and they have welcomed it and appreciated the other for the challenge.”

  • “If they have been complaining for a long time, you can call it out gently: ‘I’m noticing that you have been stuck for a long time on what to do about your job. It sounds like a tough place to be. Do you have someone you can talk to in confidence about this to get more clarity, someone who isn’t your boss, someone you can trust to help you think this through?’”

How to maintain a healthy distance

For Salton, talking about yourself and “sharing your own experiences of work challenges” can be a good way to make things less dramatic and to help your friend gain perspective. Furthermore, boundaries are necessary if you want to keep a healthy distance. Your friend may need help, but it can become overwhelming for you if they keep dumping their problems on you. “If you find yourself being that person’s only confidant, you might want to encourage them to find some other sources of support, whether that’s another person, a journal, a coach, or even a professional body such as ACAS,” said Phoenix Barbour.

If keeping your distance makes you feel guilty, remind yourself that it doesn’t mean you are being unsupportive. “Remember that you are not responsible for your friend’s happiness or unhappiness,” she said.

What to do if your friend refuses to quit?

Most importantly, keep in mind that if your friend refuses to quit, it’s their life and their choice. Their decision might upset you, warns Toynbee. “That’s understandable because you want your friend to be happy. Your sadness tells you that you care,” she said.

Phoenix Barbour adds: “Bear in mind that lots of people need a bit of time to work through these kinds of challenges—particularly this year, when there is a lot of uncertainty and economic instability, or fear of it, around. It might not be as straightforward as just quitting.”Once they are ready, you’ll be there for them.

What if your friend is underperforming and is worried they’ll be fired?

If your friend is stressing out about being fired because of their performance, Toynbee says that similar principles apply in terms of your response. Ask your friend to share how they are feeling and ask them whether they feel they are underperforming, which can signal fear, anxiety or doubt, or whether their manager or colleagues have commented about something they have actually done wrong,” she said.

Regardless of whether worries about work performance are justified—it might just be a case of imposter syndromeyour friend needs to ask her manager for training and get support, advises Toynbee.

And finally… always put your friendship first

We all face issues in our professional lives that we have to deal with, and many of us might have been in the same position as our friend at some point. There are different ways to tackle the situation depending on your friendship and on the context, but one thing always remains the same: be present and show your support, because in the end, that’s what friends are made for!

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