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Staff Counselling Centre


Information for HR, Managers, First Aiders & Wellbeing Advocates

Supporting Colleagues in Distress


Sometimes a colleague will become upset or distressed at work and these guidelines are intended to help you provide effective support.

When a colleague is significantly distressed at work, it can be anxiety provoking for other members of staff too. It is useful to hold this in mind when providing a containing and supportive response the individual concerned. Providing a private space for them might be helpful – somewhere where you are not likely to be interrupted or overlooked, but from which you can summon assistance if necessary.


As a First Response…

Talk to the person gently and clearly.  If they can tell you about the cause of their distress this might enable you to identify what will be helpful to them in the short term.

Allow the person time to gather their thoughts and space to do this in.  Let them express how they are feeling – they might need to cry or steady their breathing.

There is no need to try to stop their tearfulness but you might want to provide reassurance if you feel their distress is escalating rather than subsiding.  If they are not able to articulate the reason for their distress, it might be sufficient to sit with them while their feelings settle.

You do not need to find a solution to a person’s distress as much as convey understanding and reassurance. Providing time and space for them is usually the most helpful immediate response.

It can be additionally distressing to have been seen to be upset by colleagues and reassurance for this is important.  Other colleagues might also be affected and it can be helpful to check how they are afterwards.

Providing the person with a glass of water or a cup of tea can be comforting and helpful.


Once you have provided some initial support…

At some point you might need to determine whether your colleague needs to take some time out or return home. It can be useful to ascertain whether there will be anyone at home to support them – whether they want this – and whether there is anyone you can call for them.

It can be helpful to help them to think about how they can best look after themselves for the remainder of the day, and beyond this:  do they need to talk with their GP? Are they already receiving support from someone? Might they need help in accessing professional support – such as the Staff Counselling Centre, or Occupational Health?

If you feel that the person’s needs for support are more than you can manage, you might find it helpful to talk through the situation with a counsellor at the University Staff Counselling Centre

Tel: 01223 762160   Email:

Sometimes when people are distressed they can respond in ways which are out of character for them. They might behave aggressively if they feel under threat. This does not mean you are doing anything wrong but you will need to prioritise your own safety and wellbeing and that of other people present.

If you are worried for the person’s safety or the safety of others, you might need to consider asking for further support by phoning 111 option 2 and discussion your concerns or seeking assistance from the University Security Service

Tel 01223 (3)39513   Email


Panic Attacks

If your colleague says they are having a panic attack:


    • Reassure them that this is not harmful but their body’s response to something their brain has perceived as a threat.
    • Suggest they try to breath from their diaphragm – by pushing their stomach out as they breathe in.
    • They can regulate their breathing by breathing in for 2 counts, holding for 2 counts and breathing out for 2 counts.
    • They might find it useful to hold their focus on the part of their body where they experience their distress – they are not doing so with intent (e.g. to get rid of their panic) but to notice and observe.
    • You can also try holding your hand out flat in front of their eyes (about a foot or so away). Ask them to focus on your hand and then move it up and down a short way very slowly.  This will take their focus off the panic experience and slow them down.


If your colleague says they are feeling suicidal

It is ok to ask if people feel suicidal. Asking this will not make them more likely to act on their feelings.

The important thing is to try not to be fearful of what might happen, but to engage with the person and learn a little more about why they are feeling this way. In this instance see further professional support from the University Staff Counselling Centre or by phoning 111 and selecting option 2.



Check on all colleagues who might have been affected and provide an opportunity to debrief.

Contact the Staff Counselling Centre if you need support with this.

Check up on the person subsequently.

As their manager you may want to consider the following:

                Would a management referral to OH be helpful

                Would a self-referral to OH or the Counselling Service be helpful

                Do you need to consider completing the Stress Identification Tool

                Do you need to address any short or long term issues with the staff member


Support from within the University



  • Managing Stress and Promoting Wellbeing at Work Policy 


  • Sickness Absence Policy


  • Dignity at Work Policy


  • Capability Policy


  • EDI Policy


People and Services


  • Colleagues

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at Cambridge | Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Champions | Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (

  • Human Resources

  • Occupational Health

  • Staff Counselling Centre

  • Chaplain

  • Mediation

  • Dignity at Work

  • Unions


Unite and Unison

  • Wellbeing

Wellbeing | (



Support outside the University

  • GP
  • NHS Psychological Wellbeing Service

  • Samaritans

  • Lifecraft

  • CAMEO - NHS service in Cambridgeshire that provides specialised assessment, care and support to young people experiencing a first episode of psychosis

  • Crisis Team

  • MIND

  • QWELL -Online counselling and well-being for adults


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