19th March, 2024

Beware Your Kindest Colleagues

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

What happens when we’re not feeling well, or when we’re feeling overwhelmed at work? Often, we turn to our colleagues for support. But what happens when that support doesn’t come, or it’s not as helpful as we’d hoped?

When we’re all in the same boat, it’s tricky to get a different perspective. Even well-meaning advice from a colleague can feel misplaced or missing the mark, as it’s shaped by their own experiences and limitations. This can leave us feeling resentful and even more stressed than before.

We need to look outside our immediate work environment, to seek out “useless friends”, understand why we’re asking for advice and be clear about what we hope to gain from it.

In this quick dip episode, Rachel lays out where to seek help when we’re stressed, and some pitfalls to watch out for.

Our colleagues – even the most supportive ones – mean well. But often, so do those who aren’t in a position to help. So we need to make sure to get an outside perspective so we don’t become resentful or frustrated, and damage our work relationships.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  • Handle disappointment if colleagues aren’t able to support you
  • Find friends who can give you an unbiased perspective
  • Pinpoint your needs, set clear expectations, and avoid the pitfalls of short-term solutions

Episode highlights


What we expect of our colleagues


Our colleagues are human


You’re all in the same boat


Knowing what you want


Our colleagues’ hidden agendas


Being demanding and entitled


Continuing down the wrong path

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Rachel: I was talking to somebody recently who had gone off sick with stress and burnout. And she’d been really disappointed about the reaction that’s her work, particularly her clinical manager had had about her illness. And she had gone into them and said to them, look. I’m feeling really unwell. I’m feeling really stressed. I can’t focus. I think I need to take some time off. And rather than say to, yeah, no, I think you’re right, that’s absolutely fine, we’ll source out, they had ummed and ahhed, made life a little bit difficult and said they weren’t very sure that they could actually do that for her.

[00:00:34] And she was upset, she felt really let down, and she was getting really angry that people hadn’t been more supportive. Now it got me thinking about why we expect our work colleagues to support us so much, and how we are as colleagues to other people when they’re struggling.

[00:00:54] Now I know that in an ideal world, Would be the best colleagues ever, we would always think about other people, we would want the best for them at all times, But I think if we’re honest, We get this wrong. We think that everyone who we work with needs to be incredibly compassionate and supportive of us, whatever we’re doing. And if you think about it logically, why should they be? Why should they be supportive and compassionate to us when quite a lot of the time, what we’re asking of them is going to make their lives worse?

[00:01:29] This is a You Are Not a Frog quick dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea so you can return to whatever else you’re up to. Feeling energized and inspired for more tools, tips, and insights to help you thrive at work. Don’t forget to subscribe to you are not a frog wherever you get your podcasts.

[00:02:01] So this idea that our work should always support us, that the people that we work with should be wonderfully compassionate to us, whatever we go through, I think if we expect that, then we’re going to be sorely disappointed.

[00:02:15] In fact recently, I was also talking to a friend who’s in a wonderful practice. She absolutely loves her partners and she’s had some family stuff going on, which has meant that she hasn’t been able to go out very much. And I said to her, how much are you managing to connect with other people at the moment? And she said to me, oh, it doesn’t matter because actually, I’m such good friends with the people at work. My partners, they’re really close. We’re really close, and we’re like a family and we get on brilliantly.

[00:02:39] And that is fantastic. It’s fantastic to have good working relationships. And don’t get me wrong, we really, really need friends at work. You know, life is too short and we spend too much time at work not to get on with the people that we work with. But if we have all our eggs in one basket and the people we work with are our best, best friends, then what happens when we can’t work there anymore, or things go a little bit wrong, or we have to make some decisions that are good for us, but not for them? Then it becomes severally hard, doesn’t it?

[00:03:09] So while it seems highly right that people at work, particularly our magic colleagues, our bosses, our managers know what’s going on for us, we go to them very early on if we’re feeling stressed, if we’re feeling we’re not performing well, if there’s something wrong, we shouldn’t expect them to come in like knights in shining armor and rescue us and saw everything out for us. And we need to recognize what’s going on for them as well.

[00:03:35] Because so often, when people have encountered resistance from work colleagues when they’ve shared that the not fitting so well or their stress, or they need to sort themselves out, it just makes us stress even worse. It creates a bad atmosphere, they’ll go of stress for longer, it will be harder to return to work. And, and things just sort of spiral and can get into a very, very toxic dance of people not understanding at work, us demanding too much, working life becoming even more difficult, thus escalating stress, and it can then turn our workplace from being once a great place into a really, really difficult place, or from being a, a fairly difficult place into an awful place.

[00:04:17] But I think there’s different ways that we can handle this at the beginning. And when we get this wrong, there’s just such a lot of guilt on each side, like guilt on the side of the workplace that maybe they haven’t treated you right, anger on your side that you haven’t been treated right, guilt for letting people down, um, and it all just gets really toxic and very, very difficult if we get this right. then actually we can get back to work quicker, we can help improve things for everybody, and we don’t cause so many problems for other people, which is what we worried about in the first place, isn’t it?

[00:04:50] So why is it so difficult for our work colleagues to support us? When we are not well, or when we’ve got things going on in our lives, which means they’re not performing so well, or when we’re distracted or when, when we’re off sick?

[00:05:02] Well, firstly we need to realize that these people are human beings as well, and no matter how lovely and kind and nice they are, they will need to protect themselves. We have this hugely inbuilt self protection drives. So whenever you tell me something, my amygdala is automatically making me think, well, what does that mean for me in terms of threats? So what does that mean to me in terms of my status? What does that mean for me in terms of how much work I’m going to have to do? What does that mean for me in terms of my physical safety, or how I operate within this world?

[00:05:36] Much as I would love to go firstly to oh, what does that mean for you, and how can I help you? The way that we are hardwired is the Immediately makes us think about the threat for ourselves. And this is unconscious, and like I’ve told you before, it happens five times faster than our rational human brain. Doesn’t mean you’re a mean person. It just means that you’re a human being and your threat detection system is working quite well. Now we don’t often realize that this is the case. We might start to feel uncomfortable or angry. And then we tell ourselves stories that actually is the other person that’s being tricky. And it’s the other person that’s being flaky or, or, or acopic. But actually what it is is, is concerned for our own wellbeing. You know, if someone goes off sick, then that’s going to be double the work for me, isn’t it.?

[00:06:19] The next reason why I think it’s really difficult for, for work colleagues and friends to support you in the way that you really need is that, the context is very different. Now let me explain what I mean by that. When we all work in the same place, we are under the solution that we’re thinking the same. We’ve got the same stuff going on for everybody. And that our work lives are pretty identical. And we very rarely recognize that we all get treated differently at work, depending on maybe our gender, our seniority, our skillset, our personality. So how one person’s treated at work might be very different to another person. And certainly your experience of what goes on in the world is very, very effected. by the trauma that we’ve been through as children, by all these stories that we tell ourselves, by, by our experience with the world. So, you know, one person’s frank open discussion is another person’s bullying.

[00:07:17] So we do see the world very, very differently, even if we are working in nearly identical roles. Plus, we’ve all got very, very different things going on at home.

[00:07:26] I remember being in a talk with some very senior faculty about equality and diversity, and they were talking about women in the workplace. And at the end of the talk, an older man, very senior man put his hand up and said, well, I’d love to employ more women, but my problem is none of them apply to positions with my team. And there were lots of sort of nodding and heads from these older men and lits around. And I knew that every single one of them had a wife at home who sorted out everything for them. The wives didn’t work, they just, uh, created a very smooth, easy life for them.

[00:08:01] And so their experience of life and work is going to be very, very different from the woman who didn’t have a wife at home to look after her, who was also taking on the emotional load for her whole family. Now I know that’s a sweeping generalization, but it’s what I observed in that particular instance.

[00:08:19] So you cannot understand what life is like for somebody else, because you do not know what’s going on for them at home. And that will make their experience of work very, very different. So when we go to our colleagues and expect them to support us in the way that we want to be supported, expectancy to make allowances and really know what’s going on for us, they can’t possibly. They cannot possibly know exactly what it’s like for us.

[00:08:42] And so often they’ll give us advice or they’ll say, well, I don’t quite see why you can’t deal with that. And maybe we’ll, we can make that allowance, but not this without really understanding what it’s like for us. And then we think that well, because they’re working in the same job at us, they really, really know what we need. And quite a lot of the time they don’t because it is different for everybody.

[00:09:02] Side note: the best colleagues will then ask you what you need. And what’s really going on and take a real coaching process to try and try and stick the pin sweats. But often we don’t get curious. We just go into self-protective mode and think, oh, crumbs, how can I sort this situation? Which leads me to my next problem, where you just become a rescuer.

[00:09:19] So if someone comes to you and says, like I’m feeling quite stressed, I’m, I’m really struggling at the moment, your first thought isn’t okay, what does this person really need? It’s oh my goodness, uh, how, how can I help them? What do I need to do? Or it’s even blaming ourselves thinking, gosh, if I was a better work colleague, if I was nice to hear, I would help them, I would help this person. I know that. In my team. If anybody ever says that they’re feeling. A bit overwhelmed, a bit stressed, I automatically go into the inner critic telling myself it’s your fault, Rachel, it’s your fault. You’ve not been kind enough, you haven’t supported them enough, et cetera.

[00:09:54] Now it very rarely is. Often it’s due to their own stuff and what’s going on, but we do blame ourselves, don’t we? We really take everybody else’s issues onto our own shoulders. Most of the time, it’s nothing to do with you. But if you think of it from the other point of view, when you go and tell your colleagues that that is often what they will be thinking. And either they will go into victim thinking, well, w w well, Well, it’s not my fault or they’ll go into rescue us and, and just try and solve it for you. Which short term might help.

[00:10:27] Now. I remember when I was a junior doctor,, my grandmother died and it was incredibly sad. And not knowing what I know now, I, I was on call that night and I just went and set that on call. And I just found myself going from bed to bed weeping about my, my beloved grandmother who had died. Um, and the next day. I haven’t really told any of my colleagues, and I told the people I was working with. And the next day, one of my colleagues really kindly did my next on-call for me, just at the goodness of her heart. She did it because I really, really needed it. And I, I I’m forever grateful to her for doing that.

[00:11:00] Now short term, that’s great. Short term we do these favors for people. But longterm she can have then taken every single on-call I’d said to make it easier for me. No longterm, if, if, if it had been an ongoing issue, that would have needed to be passed up. So actually it could be sorted out properly. But often we then try and do the short term rescuing of colleagues thinking, well, if I just thought that out now it’s going to be better and they’re not going to go off sick or whatever, but actually longstanding, they probably still will. And what happens is that things aren’t sorted out by the people who actually hold the budget, who, who really needs to take responsibility for sourcing out. So the short-term rescue a bit just doesn’t work.

[00:11:38] The other issue with asking your colleagues for help and support is that you are all in the same boat. And when you are all in the same boat, it’s very difficult to get a different perspective. It’s very difficult to get the perspective of someone looking from the light house or from the shore, all you can see is the waves. So often, the advice we get is not that helpful. And for me, when I have been in situations where I really don’t know what to do, someone who’s in exactly the same situation as me, hasn’t been very helpful. It’s needed somebody else outside of the situation to help me think through the issues.

[00:12:14] So beware the well-meaning very, very helpful advice from a colleague in the same situation, because you will start to get advice about, well, I wouldn’t do that because that would really damage your career or you can’t possibly do that, ’cause what would so-and-so think? So those are all concerns of theirs. But actually you’re not being encouraged to think around the problem. Think actually what’s lying at the root of that because when you’re in it, it’s very difficult to see above it.

[00:12:38] And finally, and if I’m honest, I felt like this myself sometimes, your colleagues might be envious. They might be envious that you’ve actually identified a problem and you’re getting some help and you want to make a change, and they might be even more stuck than you. So when you raise the issue, what that does, it triggers something in them. And rather than it come out as, as, as envy thinking, actually, I would, I would love to be able to do this, I need to do this myself. It will just come out as anger, and you might get accusations and you might get told that you’re really shafting the team. And this is absolutely the worst thing that you could do, whereas actually that person really needs to do it themselves. So watch out for that, the emotions that you see displayed from people may not be what that actually feeling. They might not give you the clue to the root cause.

[00:13:28] So that’s a little bit of a brain dump about why relying on your work colleagues give you all the support you need. Can be unhelpful. So, so what should you do instead? Well, Hey, here’s a few thoughts I’ve had.

[00:13:39] Firstly, you need some useless friends, right? You need some friends that aren’t connected to your work, that don’t have an opinion. On what you do that love you for you. Remember that perspective I was talking about, they will be on the shore, up a mountain, or in a much bigger ship rather than with you in that boat, that with all the ways and the storms, they will be able to see what’s really going on for you as a person. And advice they give you, well, I was going to say we’ll be unbiased, but it probably won’t be unbiased, it will be biased towards you, but it won’t be biased towards having to keep the show on the road.

[00:14:14] And so you will be able to take that, that other opinion about actually what would be the best for me, from someone that doesn’t care about whether your work carries on or it doesn’t.

[00:14:24] The second thing you need to save is actually know, know what you want. ‘Cause quite a lot of time, we go and see, I don’t know, HR or manager or our boss or our, or we go into its white colleagues and say, look, this is how I’m feeling, and we don’t really know what we want. And we think, well, I’ll just see what they say and see if they suggest what I really need when maybe you do need some time off, But you really want then to suggest it. That often isn’t going to happen because of that self protectionism I’ve been talking about earlier, because if you take time off, that’s going to be very difficult for them and they might be on the edge too.

[00:14:57] So you probably need to formulate a bit of a plan before you even go to see them. Think about actually, what is it that I really need to recover as well as I can and, and really be able to be firing on all cylinders? It might be, you know, cutting down some work. It might be changing your role. It might be taking some time off. It just, it might be something really small, but. I have an idea of what you want before you go in, otherwise you’re not going to get anywhere near what you really need.

[00:15:22] And related to that is actually knowing in advance, why you’re asking for this. And I’ve talked about this a lot before. If you know your why, if you know the long-term reasons why you’re asking for something, then it becomes a lot easier to tolerate that short term discomfort. You know, I know I’m asking for this now, which is tricky, you might not agree with me, it might upset you. It might be inconvenience for you, but actually longterm, this is why I’m doing it. If, you know your, why, then you’ll be able to stick to it much more. And if you know your why, and this is the really important thing you can give yourself permission. Because we don’t give ourselves permission. We are waiting for everybody else to give us permission. And if you’re waiting for that, then you might be wasting for a very, very long time. Because why would you give permission the someone else. To actually get better when you’re fitting dreadful yourself? It’s really, really difficult.

[00:16:18] And this is what we see in healthcare all the time, that people that are trying to break out of the trap in the vicious cycle of stress and overwhelm, feel that they’re waiting for permission from other people which never comes because everybody’s stuck in the same trap. We need to do this for ourselves, nobody else is going to do that. And that is where you’ll use this friends coming as well, because they will give you permission. But bottom line, you’re going to be the ones stopping yourself because well, these feedings that we’ve talked about before, about guilt, about letting your colleagues down about, about the shame of well, I’m just not good enough am I, if I, if I can’t cope at the moment or, or I’m not very well, or I need support. And fair and fair about what might happen in the future. So know your why.

[00:16:59] And then yes, of course, you need to talk to your colleagues. Of course, you need to expect some support for them and talk to your HR department and your boss and your team. Definitely, but that cannot be the only support that you get. You need to get support from elsewhere. And probably the majority of your support from elsewhere.

[00:17:17] Because when you’re all in the same boat, like I said, it’s difficult to support each other as well as you would want to. Don’t put them on that on somebody else when they are trying to Cate with enough themselves. So seek out the stuff you need. And that may be funding a therapist. Probably we’ll be seeing your own doctor. It might be talking to practitioner health and it will definitely be talking to your close friends and family outside of work.

[00:17:41] So finally, just want to talk about the mistakes that people make when they do this.

[00:17:45] Well, firstly, we might fail to see the hidden agenda amongst our colleagues. They may fail to see their own hidden agenda. You know, they want to be altruistic, but they will probably be triggered and worried as well. And they might get into rescue role or give some bad advice. So make sure you always think actually what agenda might they have that they might not even realize?

[00:18:06] Another mistake is just giving in too early when we ask for something that we know we need, and we get a little bit of pushback we accommodate because we’re so worried about the damage to the relationship. So in order to avoid that, you need to know what you want before you go into these discussions.

[00:18:22] The other mistake that we make is not having unconditional positive regard for the other person, and thinking that they’re just evil and play nasty if they don’t immediately give you permission or the support that you need. Recognize that they are trying to be helpful. They are trying to civic a job, but as I’ve said before, they’re in the same boat as you, and that might be difficult for them. But if you go in knowing or really believing that they want to help you, that they would love to help you, but sometimes they just can’t, that will really help the relationship and an oil the cogs they’re a little bit too.

[00:18:56] The other mistake we make is we become very demanding and entitled. These are my rights. This is what I’m going to do. And I demand that you absolutely meet all my requests here. And that just results in a culture of fear for organizations as well, because they don’t want to be the wrong end of a, an employment tribunal, but they also need to get the jobs and they also need to provide a service. So try and be as reasonable as you can. And don’t ask for stuff that is incredibly unfair to other people. Because that’s very difficult for people to agree to.

[00:19:28] So try it and come out with some win-win solutions. Try and suggest stuff that, that doesn’t seem to be totally unfair to other people, because you might win the battle, but you’ll lose the war because of the resentment that will build up.

[00:19:41] The other mistake is taking too much notice about the advice that your work colleagues give you, or not enough notice. Let their voice be part of the voices that you were listening to when you’re deciding what you’re going to do. Bottom line: you need to trust your own intuition.

[00:19:57] And finally, another big mistake we make is actually continuing with something that’s blatantly wrong for us. So, if you are finding that this problem is recurring, it’s not getting any better, despite having tried a lot of different things, then it’s not fair on you or your workplace for you to carry on doing a job that you hate, that doesn’t suit you, that’s making you stressed.

[00:20:22] Seriously, if that’s not working for you, if you are miserable, find something to do that you enjoy, that you love. It’s not good for anybody. And, um, I think a lot of people just carry on, carry on thinking this is going to be better next year, and then nothing changes and it doesn’t get better. So don’t make the mistake of literally flogging a dead horse. If something needs to change, first of all, identify that, get some coaching, and work out what needs to change.

[00:20:50] That’s just some thoughts on what do we do when our colleagues really aren’t as sympathetic as we would like them to be, or should we be relying on our colleagues for support or if you’re a colleague, and someone’s needing support from you, you know, what should I do? So if you are a colleague, then what I would suggest this. You know, just be really, really aware of your inner chimp and the images and response and the self protectionism that you will feel when people try and talk to you about this sort of stuff.

[00:21:17] And make sure that you express what’s in your mind. And you can just say, actually, you know what, when you’re saying this I’m, I would love to support you, but at the moment, I’m just feeling really concerned and worried about covering the workload, so I might not be the best person at the moment .

[00:21:31] And get advice when you need to make sure that that person has got other people supporting themselves as well, because at the end of the day, we all want good relationships at work. We all want everybody to be happy and firing on all cylinders. That doesn’t often happen, does it? And we need some give and take. We need to support each other, we need them to support us. But if you’re putting the responsibility for all the support on the shoulders of your work, who also. Hatter produce an output, produce a day job. Then it’s going to be difficult.

[00:22:01] So in summary, give yourself permission, know what you want, know your why, and make sure you’re not just relying on your kind work colleagues. And if you were feeling really quite overwhelmed at the moment and stressed and you don’t quite know what to do then can I suggest a good place to start is just download our Overwhelm SOS Toolkit, work through that, work out what you need. Uh, please just give yourself permission to spend some time working out, what is the right thing, what’s the best thing for you?