How to Identify Stress in Others

Stress is what happens when the demands placed on someone exceed what they can readily cope with. While a certain amount of pressure is a part of everyday life, and can actually help people to perform better, too much pressure can cause stress to build.

Even if your organisation has a policy on mental health and an active HR manager or team, it's most likely a friend or co-worker who'll be the first person to notice a change in someone's behaviour that could indicate stress.

Here are a few examples of unusual behaviours that could be signs of stress:

  • · Snapping at colleagues.

  • · Losing concentration.

  • · Putting off decisions.

  • · Restlessness.

  • · Emotional volatility.

  • · Anxiety.

  • · Erratic behaviour.

Why Giving Support Matters

Even when you know that someone is suffering from stress, it can be difficult to broach the subject. You might be scared of causing offence, making it worse, or causing the other person to become angry or emotional.

But offering your support can be a crucial first step in battling the often serious mental and physical problems caused by excessive stress, such as burnout, depression, sleeplessness & fatigue.

The problems caused by stress can also go beyond the individual who is suffering. It can begin to impact his or her performance at work, forcing others to "pick up the slack," and relationships to break down.

Your support can help to the ease the impact of these "side effects" and to keep team relationships strong.

How to Support a Stressed Co-Worker

In this section, we explore five ways you can offer practical and emotional support to a colleague who is suffering from stress:

1. Establish a Connection

If you suspect that someone is experiencing stress, find a quiet moment to ask them how they are doing.

It may take a bit of courage to approach them at first, particularly if they are frequently angry or upset. So, be cautious. Talk to them in private, and be tactful and sensitive. Start the conversation with a neutral question that encourages them to open up. For example, "I've noticed that you don't seem quite yourself lately. Are you OK? Can I help?"

They may not want to talk; in which case you'll need to respect their privacy. Though you can still let them know that you're there if they ever do want to chat.

If they do open up, show them that you're engaged and that you care. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is listening can go a long way toward easing the burden of stress.

2. Get to the Root of the Problem

Stress can be triggered by a number of different things. It might spike at regular intervals (when preparing monthly reports, say, or meeting mortgage payments), be continuous (a difficult relationship at work or at home), or be a one-off (such a bereavement).

The support that you give to your friend or co-worker will depend on what the problem is. So, try to get to the root of it by asking open questions that encourage them to talk about their feelings, and what triggered them.

In a work environment, problems usually stem from one of three sources:

  • Workload: they simply have more work to do than they can cope with.

  • Competency: they feel that they don’t have the skills that they need to successfully carry out the job.

  • Relationships: they feel that a colleague is being aggressive, unhelpful or hostile.

3. Suggest Practical Ways Forward

  • If the root of your co-worker's stress does fall into once of the three sources above, use these strategies to offer some practical solutions:


  • People with challenging workloads often struggle because they're unable to see an end to what they have to do. What's more, stress can cause people to become even more disorganised and confused, and the whole cycle begins again.

  • Start by helping your co-worker to get organised. First, sit down with them and draw up a To-Do List. Then assign a number to each task, based on its priority. If they have any large, time-consuming jobs that they finds overwhelming, try breaking them down into manageable chunks. This will make it easier to achieve quick wins.

  • If there are any low-priority tasks on the list, you could offer to help out – if you have the capacity – or suggest delegating the work to someone else on the team.


  • When someone feels "out of her depth" at work, it can be seriously debilitating and demoralising, even when it's not true.

  • Remind them of similar tasks that they have performed well in the past, or of other areas where they have excelled or helped other team members. If there is a genuine skills gap, suggest that they talk to her manager about training/upskilling.


  • Difficult relationships often cause stress to spike. Whether it's a bullying manager, an awkward client, or a sarcastic co-worker, most of us can think of someone who sends our blood pressure rising.

  • Listen carefully to what your co-worker is experiencing and see whether you can offer a different perspective. Don't take sides, as this could inflame the situation. But see if you can "reframe" the behaviour of the other person, especially if you think that your friend has misconstrued things.

  • However, if the behaviour is unacceptable (for instance, if your colleague is being bullied, harassed, or treated unfairly), encourage them to be assertive, and to seek help from their manager or from HR

4. Offer Friendship

  • You can't always unpick someone else's problems – and trying to do so may even end up causing you stress, too. But you can still be kind and supportive.

  • Make your co-worker a coffee now and again, and make sure that they know that you're always available as a "sounding board."

  • If the problem is severe and persistent, encourage them to speak to their manager.

5. Do not Get Too Involved

  • Your support will likely ease the burden of stress that your friend is feeling, but remember that your own reserves of time, capacity, capability, and even patience are finite, too.

  • There will only be so much that you can listen to, think about, and advise on without feeling overloaded by it all. You may find that it starts to drag you down, eventually. It might even drive a wedge between you and your co-worker, if you're not careful.

  • You want the best possible outcome for your co-worker, but this must not come at the expense of your own well-being. Stress can have a "ripple effect" on the people that are close to the sufferer.

Key Points

  1. Establish a connection.

  2. Get to the root of the problem.

  3. Suggest practical ways forward.

  4. Offer friendship.

  5. Don't get too involved

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