How to deal with a colleague who has issues

Sep 28, 2022

7 mins

How to deal with a colleague who has issues
Madeleine Crean


Mental health is a common topic in today’s working world. Employees and employers alike are more likely to be open about the need to spend time away from the job, or to have a working pattern that complements the way the brain works. These conversations may be less taboo than in the past, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do. One study shows that many people display a strong desire to avoid working with those they know to have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. So what happens when two people who work together clash and the mental health of one of them may be a factor? What if the situation doesn’t have an obvious solution? It’s tempting to try to work things out between yourselves, but that isn’t a good idea, according to Pallvi Davé, a psychodynamic counselor specializing in work-related issues.

Recognizing when a colleague has issues

Tarun Khatri, who is a team lead at a fast-growing financial start-up, has experience of managing a colleague with mental health issues. “I was tasked with setting – and hitting – performance targets,” he says. “My job was to make processes efficient, which put a lot of pressure on people to work more, or to be more efficient.

The pace was fast and the workload was heavy. One new hire, who had a diagnosed anxiety disorder, found it difficult to cope. “One person had chronic anxiety and reacted very badly to the pressure. I was feeling very lost about how to help, because there was no room for any flexibility in terms of what was expected of people,” he says.

Khatri felt powerless to help his colleague. He also feared that doing so could put his own position at risk. “That made me anxious then, because on the one hand, I felt quite sensitive to this person’s needs and I felt that I wanted to do more to help,” he says. “But on the other hand, my job was precarious because it was during the pandemic. Things were changing at a dizzying pace and people were getting fired left right and center.”

Despite his fears for his own job, Khatri tried to ease the staffer’s worries. “I tried to boost their confidence and remind them that there were other safeguards in place if you made a wrong decision. I even said that it isn’t unusual to make wrong decisions, that’s how people learn after all. I also tried to offer support by pairing them with another analyst who was faster. But it didn’t really work.”

While empathy at work is admirable, the responsibility lies with HR to solve this type of problem, according to Davé. Attempting to manage an unwell colleague on your own like this can be unhealthy. “This would be hard . . . in the same way as it would be hard to manage someone’s else’s physical health needs,” she says, adding that the manager should seek professional support for their own mental health in such instances.

They would benefit perhaps from understanding their own fears and worries, and thinking through options to help them better manage and cope with their own workplace stress and anxiety, but to not adopt that of others but to encourage and support their colleague to seek their own support too,” she says.

Despite Khatri’s attempts to help, that new hire lasted just three months in the job before quitting. “The whole stint was very brief,” he says. “The person joined, underwent training, and then there was the usual learning curve of starting slowly. It just didn’t work out.

Khatri believes the employee should have been offered a less stressful position in the company. “I think that the kindest thing you could do would be to have more flexible lateral career mobility within the company, not just vertical.” He explains that, oftentimes, new hires end up getting roles that do not suit them. “In that situation, the only thing I can think of is to find another role in the company for that person. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option.”

Davé says the root of the problem lies in the hiring process. Recruiters and HR need to have more than just hard skills in mind when hiring people so that they can avoid situations like these, she says. They need to consider the whole person. “The way companies and organizations are thinking about their talent is changing,” she says. “But often people are seen in a very mechanistic way. You see a job title and description, and then the person fits into that – there is little regard for the actual human that sits behind that role and that job title.”

Conducting a skills assessment on potential new hires can be a good way of deciding what their strong and weak points are. Experts say that also asking former co-workers can be a good idea too as they are more likely to identify soft skills in their colleagues as strong points.

It is important that HR tackle these issues, not individuals, says Davé. “It’s up to the organization to engender a culture where people can be a bit more free in terms of how they express how they’re feeling,” she says. “People come to the office or work environment, but there are humans behind the job titles. Companies must recognize what is going on with this individual that is creating this sort of behavior – and allow space, therapy, counseling, onsite counseling, or whatever it might be to help.

It’s not appropriate for other members of staff, even managers, to try to work things out themselves. “Employees around this person shouldn’t have to manage it themselves because they’ve got enough to do, they’ve got their own work to do and their own lives to manage,” she says.

When approaching HR, remember that this information can remain confidential. If you have a bad relationship with the staffer and aren’t comfortable, your complaint can be dealt with discreetly. If you feel like your mental health is being affected by this situation, companies with 15 or more people are required to accommodate you under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As people become more open in discussing mental health issues, so too businesses need to change their attitude, according to Davé. “We all come to work with our own histories, our own narratives, our own emotions and feelings,” she says. “Any organization will need to consider these things to succeed in the future. It needs to be able to see the person that they employ in their entirety. You’re employing somebody because of their mental capacity, essentially. That is the resource that you’re buying. So why would you discount a huge portion of that? It makes no business sense to do that.

HR professionals suggest asking candidates how they manage stress, and how they adapt to unfamiliar circumstances when hiring. Know what soft skills are important for the role, and make sure that person can take it on.

Having the tools to help

Roger Ziad, who has spent his career working in mental health, is working as a therapist using cognitive behavioral therapy. Ziad used to work as a psychological wellbeing practitioner and in that role he managed a girl who had diagnosed social anxiety. Taking her on, he was aware of her issues and willing to accommodate them. However a family bereavement exacerbated the problem. “She was my admin assistant. Her mother became ill and passed away, and her work schedule became very, very erratic. She wasn’t turning up to work every day,” he says.

I brushed a lot of [it] under the rug. I didn’t report her sick days as sick days. That was because I knew that it was a bigger problem for her. You can only have a certain number of sick days off. She broke that within a week. I dealt with it that way, but I knew that she . . . wouldn’t get that kind of leeway with another manager. She was in an acute place of difficulty, but hopefully it could get better. . . But there were times when it affected me, because then I had to take on her workload because she was not available.” Ziad’s colleague quit shortly after he left the job.

Being a mental health care professional, Ziad felt he was equipped to deal with the issue. “When it comes to social anxiety, I always had to do more to accommodate her versus someone who didn’t require those accommodations,” he says. “Would I feel that someone who didn’t have my background and mental health would have the skills to be able to help out? I doubt it. Because I relied heavily on the same things I would use in therapy with someone with social anxiety. I can imagine that someone outside would need some kind of training, or some kind of support in order to know what to do.

A study by Ridley stressed the importance of having managers and leaders trained to recognize signs of mental health issues, and with the tools to know how to deal with them – and that those leaders should be open with the organization about their own battles with mental health in an effort to break down stigma. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2022 also suggests that leaders be trained to be empathetic to mental health issues, and that companies make mental health services easily accessible.

Ziad also believes that HR teams need to deal with these issues, not individual employees. “Especially with big organizations, [they] should have a team of people who have a background in psychology and mental health, and are able to spot signs of mental health difficulties and know what kind of support they can give, and also know how to support the managers with mental health [issues],”’ he says. “That’s something I did quite a lot of, I worked with people with social anxiety to help them become more confident in themselves and be able to speak publicly. Not all mental health problems cause difficulty, you can accommodate for some. And if they’re willing to work with you and push the envelope a little bit, you can get to a place that you want to get to.

Steps for the future

Mental health issues are part and parcel of who we are. Certain roles may bring out the best in you, while others may exacerbate existing concerns. These things are becoming more and more important to young employees with 67% of millennials saying they want a work culture built around mental health and wellness, compared to just 31% of baby boomers. Recruiters need to get to know the whole person they are considering for a role, and what kind of personality has the ability to thrive in it, according to Davé. “It’s important that systems in place work best for everybody, and don’t just push one way to be in an organization,” she says. “Maybe in the past you could look at an organization and feel as if they were just taking on clones because everybody would have the same kind of characteristics. But things are changing now.”

Names have been changes to protect identities

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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