You are well. Not a problem at all (well, give or take. . . ), but you hear a rumour that your colleague is “off her rocker.” “Crazy.” “Having a nervous breakdown.” “On ‘stress leave’.” Actually, he has been depressed.
What do you do?
For starters, curb the euphemisms and slang, and start thinking that there might be a medical diagnosis; that there might be more going on than you could possibly know about. Second, consider that the person is going through something that she might not fully understand herself. Third, find compassion and let that guide you.
No one wants to feel like a jerk and say the wrong thing.
Or, be in the situation of wanting to say something but being struck dumb by fear and saying nothing.
Here are some scripts that can help.
What to say to a colleague who has been away from work and you have heard has been unwell.
Say, “Hello.” You might be surprised to hear of the number of people who get tripped up right here.
Say, “It’s good to see you.” He has probably heard “How are you?” so many times by health professionals that he has started answering it truthfully, instead of our western custom of replying with, “Fine, thanks.” Unless you have a friendship that supports honest conversation and you truly want to know details, and are prepared to hear him kindly, leave the “How are you” for now.
Alternatives to “How are you?”
Most people who have been ill dread this question. There is that moment where we think, “Does she really want to know? Or is this the ‘social’ version where I say ‘Fine, thanks?’” It’s confusing. If you’re looking to engage after, “Hello,” try these instead.
“How was your drive in today?” (Or bus ride, or walk)
“How is today?” (It deflects the topic from them, and they can go anywhere they want with it.)
“How is your dog?” (Or cat, or goldfish) Pets, and talking about them, usually make people happy; pets give a lot back and don’t need too much from us.
The point here isn’t the answer to the question, it’s that you’ve just made some effort toward social interaction with someone who is trying really hard to be a part of healthy society right now.
What to say to a colleague who has “come out” to you as unwell and is recovering through mental illness.
Say, “I’m happy to have you back,” and “I’m sorry that things have been tough.”
Ask, “Do you know of something that I can do to help?” Perhaps helping them to have a quieter workspace might help them to concentrate. Maybe planning more “social moments” (like coffee breaks, if your group doesn’t normally take them together) will help them to better feel a part of the workplace. Invite them to things that you normally would, even if you know that they might not want to come. It’s possible that just having you know that they’ve been unwell (and your kind reaction) will help them to feel better about being back.
Know that you will be putting in more work than you would with a colleague or friend who is well.
And even if it doesn’t look like it, know that she is putting in a lot of work to be there with you too. Expect (and respect) that she might not have a lot to give back to you right now. It will come, though. She will remember you as someone who was kind to her when all of her effort went into just showing up.
What are your alternatives to “How are you?” How else have you shown your support for a colleague who has been away sick? Let’s keep talking about it.
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I am writing this because I had an experience. I am in no way a medical professional. I had an experience, and I have learned a lot from it, and that’s the foundation of all of this. You are reading the eleventh in a series of thirteen articles on surviving depression. Find the first ten articles here.