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Recognizing and Assisting a Co-Worker in Distress

General tips for having difficult conversations, such as dismissal/non-renewal:

  • Understand the emotional impact of hearing bad news and allow the time for the affected employee to talk. Hopefully, they were aware of this potential outcome based on previous feedback; that will help them cope with the information.
  • Consider having two individuals present the news. This takes pressure off the single person giving the bad news, and provides a witness and source of support. Those present should offer to help the individual make future plans at a later date.
  • Talk with colleagues who have gone through this process before.
  • Look for signs listed below that the person is not coping well.

Recognizing and Assisting Employees in Distress

  • Trust your instincts. If you experience any sense of unease about a colleague, it is important to pay attention to those inner signals. If someone talks about painful feelings or suicide, even if it seems like a joke, it is important to express concern for the person's welfare and then to consult with professionals in order to assess the seriousness of the situation (suggested resources appear at the end of this memo).
  • Listen carefully. Many people will have trouble articulating what their real difficulties are. Be available. Show interest and offer support. Try not to get upset or communicate your own personal judgments. Be calm, receptive and serious as you listen.
  • Help them get help. The most effective means of suicide and violence prevention is a referral for professional help. Call the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program.

What to look for:

Workplace indicators may include:

  • Deterioration in quality of work
  • A negative change in demeanor
  • Repeated requests for extensions
  • Missed deadlines
  • Repeated absences
  • Disorganized or erratic performance

Communication indicators may include:

  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or other difficulties
  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Exaggerated personality traits; more withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Excessive dependency
  • Tearfulness
  • Expressions of hopelessness, fear, or worthlessness

Physical indicators may include:

  • Deterioration in physical appearance
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Visible changes in weight

Safety risk indicators may include:

  • Any written note or verbal statement that has a sense of finality or a suicidal tone to it
  • Written communications that focus on despair, suicide, violent behaviors, or death
  • Statements to the effect that the employee is "going away for a long time"
  • Giving away prized possessions or similar acts of finality
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors

Indicators of Potentially More Serious Behavior

Below is a list of actions and attitudes that may be indicators of disruptive, threatening, or violent behavior. If you observe a pattern of such behaviors and attitudes, please call the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program for a consultation.


  • Upset over recent event(s) [work or personal crisis]
  • Recently has withdrawn from normal activities, family, friends, co-workers
  • Intimidating, verbally abusive, harasses or mistreats others
  • Challenges/resists authority
  • Blames others for problems in life or work; suspicious, holds grudges
  • Use/abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Unwelcome obsessive romantic attention
  • Stalking
  • Makes threatening references to other incidents of violence
  • Makes threats to harm self, others, or property
  • Weapons - has or is fascinated with weapons
  • Has known history of violence
  • Has communicated specific proposed act(s) of disruption or violence


  • Is isolated or a loner
  • Morally superior, self-righteous
  • Feels entitled to special rights and that rules don't apply to him/her
  • Feels wronged, humiliated, degraded; wants revenge
  • Believes to have no choices or options for action except violence

University Resources:

Holly Heilberg, Career Services 434-924-4343
Faculty and Employee Assistance Program (FEAP)
Main phone numbers for appointments(voicemail provides directions for contacting the on-call counselor):
FEAP After hours/weekends: 866-950-0159
Gertrude Fraser, Vice Provost for Faculty Recruitment and Retention 434-924-3928
Milton Adams, Vice Provost for Academic Programs 434-924-3728
Dr. Sharon Hostler, Senior Associate Dean, School of Medicine and Vice Provost for Faculty Development 434-924-9030