Steps to Supporting a Colleague in Distress

This guide is intended for University of Guelph staff and faculty members to learn how to support a colleague who is in distress. Read through this guide to learn how to recognize signs of distress and how you can offer supportive assistance.

Download the document now, a printable guide for supporting colleagues in distress.

  • View the recording of the training facilities on May 2, 2023 which accompanies the guide to support staff and faculty in gaining confidence and equipping themselves with the skills necessary to support their colleagues who are experiencing distress. 

Recognize signs of distress

All employees share responsibility for supporting a mentally healthy workplace and in your role as a staff or faculty member, you may be the first person to see signs of distress in a colleague.

This may be an unfamiliar situation to you when supporting a colleague in distress, remember:

  • To trust your instincts
  • It’s okay to ask and express concern
  • Be specific about the behaviour that worries you

When recognizing signs of distress look for changes in behaviour and consider:

  • Severity/intensity of the symptoms and behaviour; and
  • Duration of the symptoms and behaviour

Respond with empathy and concern

You might be uncertain about how to respond and that is okay. You don’t need to be a mental health professional to respond to someone in distress. Being there to support your colleague is the most important thing you can do. Remember to focus on the behaviours, show concern, and demonstrate you want to help.

Listen actively, ask open-ended questions, and be aware of your body language and tone of voice.

Helpful strategies when responding:

  • Express Concern
    • "That sounds really difficult"
    • "I'm here to help."
  • Listen, Acknowledge, and Reflect
    • "I hear that you are ...... what will help you right now?"
  • Be direct and specific about the observation, and focus on behaviours. 
    • "I've noticed that you are ... [behaviour] and it seems like you ...[emotion]"
  • Instil Hope
    • "It sounds like things are tough right now. but it doesn't mean things will always be this way"


Your role is to provide resources and let your colleague know that there is help available to them. Your role is not to treat or diagnose, but to support and refer. Let them know what supports are available to them (see next page).

After responding with empathy and concern, share resources:

  1. Verbally
    • “I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing with me. I’m here to help and there are multiple options for support. Can I share some resources with you?” [verbally mention resources] “I’ll send you an e-mail with these resources including any links and phone numbers, so you have them all in one place.”
  2. In writing 
    • Send an e-mail with the resources you mentioned verbally. In times of distress, one can feel overwhelmed and may not be able to remember everything mentioned in a conversation. Your colleague can also use this for future reference.

If a colleague declines your offer of help:

  • Respect their decision. It is up to an individual if they accept assistance and explore supports, except in emergencies.
  • Remind them that if they change their mind, they can access supports in the future.

Check-in with yourself

This may be the first time you have ever had a conversation like this. You may be feeling several emotions and that’s normal. After the conversation ends, take a moment to check-in with yourself and how you are feeling. Support yourself as needed because your mental health matters too.

After you’ve recognized, responded, referred and check-in with yourself make sure to follow-up with your colleague. You don’t need to ask them if they followed through with seeking support or if their situation has improved. You can follow-up on how they are doing emotionally.

  • “How are you feeling since last time we spoke? I’m here if you’d like to talk.”

Resources to refer

“I’m concerned about the general mental health of my colleague”

Response can wait 24 hours.

Example behaviours:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Reduced productivity and/or quality of work
  • Absent or late more frequently
  • Withdrawal or reduced participation
  • Anxiety, fearfulness, or loss of confidence
  • Low or irritable mood with change in energy, appetite, sleep, and/or concentration, which is impacting daily functioning.
  • Persistent worry, obsessions, agitation, irrationality, racing thoughts.
  • Interpersonal conflict.
  • Lack of social support.


U of G Resources and Supports

Community Resources:

“I am concerned about some out of character behaviour for my colleague and am worried it may escalate.”

Requires a response today.

Example behaviours:

  • Deterioration in personal appearance and hygiene, and significant impairment with daily tasks.
  • Expressions of severe hopelessness or references to suicide
  • Substance use concerns.
  • Loss of touch with reality/severely disorganized thinking.
  • Physical health concerns.
  • Inappropriate emotional outbursts
  • Signs of self-harm


“I am concerned about my colleagues safety, or the safety of others. This is an emergency”

Immediate response required.

Example behaviours:

  • Active thoughts of suicide, with a plan or suicide attempt.
  • Behaviour that is violent, destructive, aggressive or threatening to self or others.
  • Colleague is confused, hallucinating, or has trouble remaining conscious.


  • If you are on campus call the Campus Safety Office 519-840-5000 or x52000.
  • If you are off-campus or the Campus Safety Office cannot be reached call Emergency Services: 911


Download the guide now,  for supporting colleagues in distress.


For questions or to request copies email

Supporting a student? Complete the Beyond the Books training facilitated by the Student Wellness Education & Promotion Centre.

Thank you for supporting a caring and healthy workplace!