I CARE: How to support a colleague in distress

How To Support A Colleague In Distress Featured

I Care How To Support A Colleague In Distress

Since my recovery from a mental breakdown, I have been on a quest to create a relatively simple approach that anyone can follow to support a work colleague they are concerned about. Before I outline how this approach evolved, it is worth asking – “Is this a problem worth solving?”

Why care?

The bigger question is why not?

In Australia, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition (beyondblue). And CSIRO research predicts that workplace mental ill-health will be a megatrend for at least the next 20 years.

We need to find ways to help each other, especially in the workplace because despite 91% of us wanting a mentally healthy workplace (beyondblue 2017), evidence shows that:

  • only 52% of Australian employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy.
  • workplace stress leads to a 50% higher voluntary turnover (Seppala, 2015, HBR).
  • 40% of employees have left a job due to a poor mental health environment (Superfriend, 2017).

But where do we start?

As indicated earlier, in 2000 I was working for a technology recruitment company, when my world turned upside down. The March share market ‘tech wreck’, caused a major downturn in hiring, and ultimately led to a severe depressive episode for me, which lasted for 5 years.

My recovery was slow and included elements such as good support from doctors, exercise, reconnecting with family and friends, and doing voluntary work.

As my recovery strengthened, I wanted to share hope and decided to write a book called BACK FROM THE BRINK. It contained interviews of 12 Australians who had bounced back from adversity.

In 2014 I saw a TED talk by Vikram Patel called – ‘Mental Health for all – by involving all’.Patel is an Indian psychiatrist who was trained in the UK. When he returned to India, he was alarmed by the severe shortage of mental health professionals.

Knowing this shortage couldn’t be corrected quickly, he took a novel approach and designed very basic training courses that would enable even illiterate villagers to provide support to people with a mental illness.

Peer-reviewed studies of his work and others show that this basic training delivered positive outcomes as good as well-funded first world programs.

This got me thinking that any workplace is no more than a group of one or more teams (or villages). Could we find a simple approach that anyone could follow to help a distressed colleague?

I already knew the power of enlisting everyday people to have supportive conversations,through my work helping to start and grow the mental health charity R U OK? (ruok.org.au)

In one of my subsequent books, I surveyed 4000+ people with depression and anxiety, and asked them “what worked best for your recovery?” This led to the creation of the I CARE acronym and framework. It stands for: Identify, Compassion, Access experts, Revitalising work, and Exercise. It is expanded upon below.


I Care Graphic




Is your colleague acting differently? Have they been sad, moody or restless lately? Have they lost interest in some of their favourite activities? Consider if they’re going through difficult times, like divorce or illness, and trust your instincts – If they look like they’re struggling, ask R U OK?



Put yourself in their shoes, and show support. This could be as simple as having a casual chat in a private environment and asking R U OK? Try to listen without judgement and ask open-ended questions. Encourage them to seek help, and check in a few days later to see how they’re doing.


Access experts

If your colleague confirms they’re struggling, suggest they take one of these steps:

  • Make an appointment with their GP
  • Call their Employee Assistance Provider
  • Call a helpline: Lifeline 13 11 14, SANE 1800 688 382, beyondblue 1300 224 636



Working and staying connected with their team can help recovery. Encourage your colleague to engage with their manager and HR, and continue working, even if it’s part-time or with fewer duties.



Inspire your colleague to start moving with enjoyable activities, like walking, swimming or cycling. Set small goals. Create daily exercise rituals. Or offer to go out for a lunchtime walk together for a quick chat and some fresh air.

This video provides an overview of the I CARE approach to supporting a colleague in distress.

In 2018 I met Brenden Carter, an eLearning expert, and we Co-Founded FactorC.

We are in the process of developing a range of digital and physical training courses and resources, designed to provide mental wellbeing insights and create more mentally healthy and growth-oriented workplaces.

In addition to the FactorC leadership app and this poster, in the next 5 months, we will be releasing an online training program that will be able to train thousands, an associated booklet, wallet card and book.

We have decided this is a problem worth solving.

Would you like your team to be more caring, resilient, and growth-oriented?
Why not invite Graeme to speak at your conference or organisation?

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