How to support friends having a tough time at work

We’ve all been there. A friend or family member comes to you for some help, advice or reassurance when they’re having a tough time at work. Naturally, we want to be there for the people we care about.

But helping your friend or family member through severe work-related issues can be tricky. It can be hard to find the words to offer support, never mind the right advice to give.

It’s particularly hard if your friend feels that their boss, co-workers, or customers are being racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, or in any way discriminatory. 

Effects of discrimination on family and friends

Discrimination might be affecting your friend’s physical and mental health. This includes everything from feelings of worthlessness, guilt, anger and sadness, to anxiety and stress. It could also be having a knock-on effect on their closest relationships.

If your friend or family member is a parent, for example, the baggage of stress, negative emotions, and unintended changes in everyday behaviour that come with workplace discrimination could be upsetting their kids, too.

If you’re lucky enough to have supportive, close relationships, you’re more likely to live a happier, healthier life. Stressful, less supportive relationships can have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of your life, according to recent research from the American Psychological Association. It pays to have a strong support network.

How to support a friend going through a difficult time

Learn how to offer valuable help and reassurance to those you love with our list of tips below. 

Listen with compassion

Good listening is more than being silent while the other person talks about their situation. Giving a compassionate ear to your friend or family member means focusing on the person when they’re speaking and creating a safe environment where they feel heard.

Stay present, give verbal responses and use body language that shows you’re engaged and listening.

Chat with them to get to the cause of the issue

Experiencing workplace discrimination often brings complex and confusing feelings, and your friend or family member going through it may feel paralysed and unable to make decisions. A positive step forward is to help them understand their experience by getting to the root of the problem — not enforcing a solution or making the situation about yourself.

Ask open-ended questions

An open-ended question typically starts with ‘why’, how’ or ‘what if’.

The purpose of open-ended questions is to start a longer conversation. Better yet, open-ended questions give your friend or family member the freedom and space to answer in as much detail as they feel comfortable.

Validate their experiences

Validation involves helping your friend to feel heard and understood. You can calm fears and concerns but it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Different people respond to validation in different ways.

You’ve likely been there yourself. It’s not always easy to describe how you’re feeling in the heat of a tough or emotional situation. If your friend or family member can’t think of one word when communicating about their experiences, encourage them to use lots.

Don’t jump straight to giving advice (save it for later)

When we want to help, we may have the urge to prescribe a solution or unintentionally oversimplify situations. 

Try to avoid giving advice that they haven’t asked for, even if you’re trying to be helpful. Unwanted advice might make your friend feel criticised, undermined or even patronised. As mentioned above, it’s always best to approach by listening and validating experiences.

Avoid triggering or inflaming traumatic experiences

Workplace discrimination is an overwhelming and potentially traumatic experience. It’s important to encourage the person you care about to open up and understand that they’re not the one at fault. But it’s equally important not to dig for upsetting amounts of detail if you can avoid it.

Remember, experiencing workplace discrimination might not be a one-off situation. Repeated negative incidents can take a long-term physical and mental toll on the victim. Be sensitive to potential triggers or causes of pain.

Stay in regular contact

Helping and offering support is vital, but it requires a delicate balance. Don’t be passive and appear disinterested, but don’t feel the need to get too involved or treat the problems as your own. 

Empower your friend or family member by asking them how you can help.

Check in regularly after the initial conversation to reassure your friend or family member that you’re there if they need your support or if they want to ask for your advice.

Why giving support matters

Workplace discrimination is unpleasant and confusing, which makes it tricky to navigate alone.

Your friend or family member might be too close to the situation to acknowledge how strong and brave they actually are. Giving support matters because it validates the issue and shows it’s not their fault.

If you know someone being discriminating against at work, helping them to gain clarity and knowledge around their situation is a vital step forward. 

9 protected characteristics - am I being discriminated against?

Help your loved ones help themselves

Signing up for a free account with Valla can help your friend or family member to start collecting evidence if they’re feeling worried about what’s happening at work. They can share this with you so you can help them get together everything they need to fight discrimination in the workplace. We’re here to support them every step of the way.

Sign up now

What's the next step? Get your free action toolkit

When you're standing up to your employer, it's all about leverage. Find out how to identify your leverage, build a solid argument, review your options and take the next step.

Ask a question

Got questions about this article? Ask in our free Employment Tribunal community.