How To Help Someone Struggling With Tough Work Conditions—Without Making It About You

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It’s infuriating to discover that a loved one is being subjected to less-than-ideal workplace conditions, whether that is due to a toxic boss, a generally stressful environment, or otherwise. But, the fact remains that when they come home and recount to you the conditions that have made the workday taxing or even directly unhealthy, there's only so much you can actually do to help them change the reality of the situation. After all, you can't be a workplace advocate if you can't be at their workplace. So instead, you may immediately press them with questions like ‘‘Did you try this?" or  "Did you try that?" or "If you just said this, you could make it better." But, is this "fix-it mode" actually the best answer for how to help someone struggling with a tough work environment?

Experts In This Article
  • Sally Chung, PsyD, Sally Chung, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in Bellevue, Washington.
  • Sima Kulshreshtha, Sima Kulshreshtha (LICSW) is a a mental health therapist and social worker in Seattle, Washington. She is a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist-Individual (CCTSI).
  • Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, is a board member at Therapy Aid Coalition and a clinical psychologist at Flourish Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The short answer is probably not because, well, you probably can't fix it. But the inclination to tend toward this approach makes sense, since not trying to improve a troubling situation for a loved one can breed a sense of helplessness and anxiety. “It’s difficult to see a loved one struggling and not have much control in the midst of it,” says Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, a board member at Therapy Aid Coalition and a clinical psychologist at Flourish Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

So, how can you effectively support and help someone struggling with a tough work environment while also coping with your own difficult emotions associated with the situation? Below, see five possible solutions.

Not sure how to help someone struggling with a tough work situation without making it about you? See 5 expert tips below.

1. Give your emotions space, and seek therapy if needed

As a first strategy, it can help to validate and process the feelings you experience by naming them. From there, you can try using various coping methods (like journaling, exercising, or connecting with your other friends, for example) that historically worked for you. That said, do bear in mind that you may not find these methods to work as well as they used to, since the stress you’re facing—in absorbing the stress of your loved one compounded by the stress you may be experiencing just by nature of living through pandemic times—is likely unprecedented, says Sally Chung, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Bellevue, Washington.

“Your loved one may already be exhausted, feeling down or unsure of themselves. Having to deal with someone else's anger on their behalf can make them feel really small.” —Sima Kulshreshtha, LICSW

If in allowing yourself to feel your emotions, you find that anger about your loved one's work situation is what arises for you, consider talking about it with a therapist rather than unloading your charged thoughts on the situation to them. “Your loved one may already be exhausted, feeling down or unsure of themselves," says Sima Kulshreshtha, LICSW. "Having to deal with someone else's anger on their behalf can make them feel really small.”

Kulshreshtha says to observe yourself as you journey through this with your loved one. “If you're upset all the time, and there's a lack of joy in your life, and everything is painted gray, maybe you're not in a position to even support anyone right now. And it's okay to state that.” Someone who loves you would not want you to offer support that will hurt you in the process, she adds, so allow yourself to be supported by a therapist until you are ready to be there emotionally for your loved one.

2. If the person shares their struggles with you, focus on reflecting their emotions back to them

If you want to lend emotional support to your loved one, Dr. Zerwas suggests pulling out the emotion words when they're telling you about the issues. For example, ask, "Did you feel angry because of X incident?" This gives the person a chance to pinpoint the emotion they felt in that situation, which may help them process how they feel about it and land on a course of action that they can take.

When they talk about the emotions they felt, you are also able to relate to how the emotion feels, forging a sense of connection between the both of you.

3. Ask permission before sharing how you feel

Ask if they have energy to listen to you express your true feelings about their situation. Your purpose for sharing your emotions is so both parties understand how the other feels and is able to feel more connected and not alone in a struggle, says Dr. Chung. The goal of sharing how you feel should be unity, not leading your loved one or both of you to get more worked up, stressed, or agitated.

Likewise, if your loved one grants you permission to share your feelings, take care to not shift the conversation to focus specifically on how you feel about it. Rather, use it as a springboard to allow them to further express themselves and land on a course of action.

4. Remember you cannot ease every struggle your loved one goes through

Trying to fix the problematic work situation may not always be realistic, and the pursuit of such may cause you to feel more upset. Dr. Zerwas recommends writing key messages on a crisis card or in the notes app of your phone to remind you that struggles are an inevitable part of life, and it’s okay to have limited ability to ease them sometimes. When you’re feeling especially low, read these to yourself.

Also remember that your loved one may not even want you to try to fix the problem, but simply wants support. In fact, Kulshreshtha says trying to fix the situation can send the message that you don’t trust them to come up with an effective strategy themselves. Besides this, “they’re probably already agitated from what's going on at work, so you pushing them to do something is going to send them into a freeze mode more than sending them into action,” she adds.

5. If your loved one seeks your advice, don't spell out exactly what they "should" do

If the person asks for advice or grants you permission to share your thoughts, create a space for them to mull over barriers to taking action. You can say something like, “It sounds like you're not really happy there. What are the barriers to you leaving the job or bringing it up to your boss?”

Allow them to come to the decision to take action on their own. Should they decide to, invite them to let you know how you can help before you do anything you think might be beneficial (like finding job openings or cleaning up their résumé). Taking action before they ask for your help may make them feel overwhelmed or ashamed that they hadn't taken those steps themselves. Kulshrestha suggests preparing yourself also to fully honor their decision If they end up not wanting to take any action.

Because remember, while you always want to prioritize protecting yourself and your own mental health (whether through therapy, coping mechanisms, or otherwise), ultimately the most important factor at play when it comes to a loved one's taxing work conditions is putting their lived experience first.

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