How to show compassion to coworkers having a rough holiday season

For some, the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year. While the winter months can bring merriment, promotions, and holiday bonuses, they can also bring layoffs and unexpected personal losses. Sometimes, we think the compassionate move is to not acknowledge our coworkers’ loss. We see acknowledgment of someone’s pain as inflicting another painful reminder.

But grief experts say that’s the biggest mistake we can make. Instead of tiptoeing around the subject, here’s how to acknowledge someone’s loss and show compassion to your coworkers who are struggling this season.

Don’t pressure employees to be happy

Recognize that no amount of positive thinking is going to make your coworker feel better at this time. If your colleague just lost their job, telling them “Everything happens for a reason” or “time heals all wounds” is not helpful, it’s cruel. It puts undue pressure on a struggling employee to meet your standard of how they should act.

As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, two experts who have researched how people have recovered from hardship, put it: “Pressuring people to be happy is a surefire way to make them sad; feeling bad about feeling bad just makes us feel worse.”

Instead of telling your co-worker to cheer up through well-intentioned, unhelpful help, acknowledge their feelings. Say you’re sorry they are going through this. Admit that you don’t know the right thing to say.

Don’t compare wounds

When an employee confides in you about their problems during the holidays, don’t talk about yours in response. Everyone’s loss is unique, and comparing your war story to your coworker’s’ is not empathy because it does not acknowledge their unique pain.

As grief therapist Dr. Patrick O’Malley told Ladders, “This is their story, not yours.”

Don’t say ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do’

Acknowledging someone’s struggle means going beyond the initial words of acknowledgement. Instead of making a blanket statement offering to help, do something specific. Well-intentioned platitudes like “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” put the burden on the employee going through hardship to ask for help. When the burden is placed on the employee, they may not reach out at all and will most likely continue to suffer alone.

To avoid these mistakes, grief experts suggest taking concrete, specific actions. These actions do not have to be grand gestures to be meaningful. If your colleague just lost their job, your offer to edit their resume and cover letters will be more meaningful than “I’m sorry.” If your co-worker is in the hospital, making a home-cooked meal or bringing their favorite magazine is going to leave a deeper impression.

Above all, the best support you can give an employee going through a rough time is letting them know through words and actions that they are not going to be going through this hardship alone.