how to know when someone is struggling

I Know My Team Well, They’ll Tell Me If Anything’s Wrong.

In recent years, we’ve made great strides in overcoming some of the taboos in talking about our mental health at work, with prominent leaders, celebrities, and members of Royal families openly talking about personal struggles. However, when someone admits to their manager that they feel demotivated, anxious or stressed, it can still carry the stigma of weakness, incompetence or a lack of commitment.

We’ve still a long way to go in destigmatising mental health issues and this could mean that some of your team members may be covering up and disguising their problems. This covering is hugely draining for an individual and, if they have already depleted their energy supplies, it can lead to burnout. This debilitating experience can happen to anyone.

Why Is It Important to Watch Out for Subtle Indications?

As a successful manager and leader, you may already know the link between how your team feels and business outcomes. You may have already become acutely aware that you have the most significant impact on, and responsibility for, your team and their wellbeing.

Happy, engaged, resilient teams cope well with uncertainty and bounce back quickly from setbacks. They are productive and display positivity and optimism, which is infectious. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of unhappy teams and this vicious circle is also highly contagious.

Perhaps you have already been focusing on your team’s wellbeing and encouraging them to look after themselves. You may have already given advice such as eating healthily, doing outdoor exercise, getting decent quality sleep, using mindfulness, taking frequent breaks, and all the other things we know are vital in building up our resilience.

Team members who are also parents may often be exhausted from lack of sleep and have extraordinarily little spare time, so suggesting that they get more rest, explore mindfulness or take more exercise may not be helpful. Team members who are not parents, or not yet, may not understand some of these added pressures and even become resentful, further damaging their mental health and undermining team resilience.

So, what can you do to help all the members of your team to thrive? It is much easier to prevent distress levels from building up in your team than helping them to recover from burn out. Early signs that people might be struggling can be subtle. Still, if you can spot the issues, discuss them and help individuals recover their sense of agency and psychological stamina, it will help everyone.

What to Look Out For

One behavioural model suggested in a recent HBR article by Margaret M. Luciano and Joan F. Brett (5) indicates many different manifestations of stress and distress.

Some external indicators are easier to spot, like someone being uncharacteristically angry or upset about something relatively minor. Internalised symptoms such as anxiety or mood changes are much harder to spot (particularly when we are not physically together) and are more challenging for individuals to describe and acknowledge.

Just because someone looks OK, it doesn’t mean they are.

5 Common Symptoms:

1. Withdrawal

Team members may start to be less visible in their actions – they may be noticeably quieter in meetings or cancel meetings entirely. They might seem detached when you have regular catchups or self-sabotage by not preparing for these meetings.

They may take time off without explaining their reason, perhaps not want to engage with you, put you off, and if you do meet, avoid eye contact.

What Can You Do?

Talk to them often and ask, ‘how are you?’… ‘No REALLY, how are you?’

Show a genuine and personal interest in how they are managing their lives. Ask often about balancing all the pressures. Make your catch-ups frequent and regular, start with sincere questions and listen carefully for the sentiment behind the words in their replies.

What are they not saying? You might mention something you observed in a meeting, such as “I noticed you didn’t say anything when we were discussing x, where you’ve normally got strong views. I’m not sure how to interpret this. Can you help me?”

Normalise conversations about balancing family life and work; parents need to know you understand the pressures and need more validation. Non-parents will have other factors affecting them. Do you know what is on the mind of each of your team members? Have you asked often enough about this and considered what you could do to help?

Lack of Focus

Watch out for distracted, confused team members; the signs of this can be elusive and may come and go. Have you noticed more memory lapses or someone prioritising seemingly unimportant tasks?

Parents and carers may be preoccupied with challenges outside work, leaving them drained of energy and tending to focus on the urgent reactive tasks such as writing lots of emails while letting important deadlines that require time and thought slip.

What Can You Do?

A sense of purpose is a hugely crucial factor in motivation; this is that feeling of ‘knowing why I am here’, and it is essential to all your team members. Seeing focused progress towards the desired goal gives us a sense of mastery and achievement. For parents who choose to invest the time at work, they may feel guilty about using childcare, so this is even more key for them. In our experience of working with many thousands of parents, early parenthood raises many critical existential questions about identity. Questions such as ‘how does my work fit into how I see myself as a parent?’ will likely arise.

Clarity about what success looks like in their role is likely to be a helpful discussion for you to start. You might start with the big picture, help them think about what they enjoy, what their strengths are, what they’d be proud to have achieved.

You may need to help them revisit this often to help them remain focused on playing to their strengths and applying those to the most critical outcomes. Confidence will return as they feel more validated by their success.

Changes in Behaviour or Attitudes

Parents with less elastic in their day may show impatience if meetings or discussions start to lose focus. Mostly, you’ll see this as a positive impact of parenthood, improving clarity through sharp attention to results.

Self-regulation takes energy, a lot of energy, which stress and tiredness drain. It’s easier to snap back at a perceived provocation than to step back and be curious about your irritation before responding.

What Can You Do?

Slight changes in behaviour can creep in and the less helpful of these need spotting and calling out. But how can you do this in a way that is received positively?

Looking to address the genuine issues behind the changes rather than tackling the behaviours head-on can be more effective. First, think about your part in this. Have you added to pressures? What can you do that might help?

Talk to the issue behind the behaviour as you can perceive it. For example, you don’t seem yourself, would you like to talk? How can I help? Who else can help?


Some team members may try to alleviate the fear that you see them as less committed by working longer hours. This type of working pattern can apply especially to parents coming back from parental leave and it is clear, from what they share with us in coaching sessions, that this fear can be very debilitating. Working excessive or unusual hours is not sustainable.

They may have inadvertently picked up the message that you can’t be both a committed employee and a devoted parent, which isn’t the case.

What Can You Do?

Behind the over-working often lurks deep insecurity about not feeling valued, fear of failure, self-doubt about their contribution. These can trigger heightened perfectionism, causing more overworking. Parents who may have changed working patterns often worry that they are not viewed by you as highly as before.

You’ll know there’s no point in telling them to work less, as that may reinforce the message that you don’t rate them or that they’re somehow slower, less effective than before.

They need reassurance, not criticism, pointing out successes often and publicly and telling returning parents how delighted you are to have them back in the team.

Perhaps you can help more with visibility and advocacy, so your team and its members feel recognised and that their career is on track, reducing anxiety levels.


Martin Seligman famously coined the term ‘learned helplessness’ and demonstrated the damage physically and mentally it causes.

In the face of uncertainty about the future or uncontrollable, seemingly inescapable stress, some people protect themselves by stopping trying & giving up. “If I haven’t tried, I can’t have failed.”

You may start to hear reasons for not taking action, not taking control, victim type behaviour. Learned helplessness can stem from not feeling ‘good enough’ at anything and at the same time feeling guilty about letting you and the team down.

They may be unusually riddled with self-doubt, procrastinating over simple tasks, or struggling to ask for help while also not achieving things that they would have found straightforward in the past.

What Can You Do?

Learned optimism is the opposite of learned helplessness. Optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives than hopeless pessimists who perceive many things as threats.

Anyone on the team feeling stuck, doubtful or scared, may also become hypersensitive to threats, which fuels their helplessness. They need help to engage their hope circuit, which stimulates us to believe we can control and harness uncertainty.

Hope and optimism are infectious, and you will want to spread this throughout your team. Be curious and forward-thinking. People may need help to think about possible pathways and what alternatives they have for when things don’t go to plan. You might do work with the team to build a sense of mission together and inject more of your and the team optimism into individuals.

The Impact of Hybrid and Remote Working

When we’re physically together for several hours a day, the symptoms of possible struggles can be easier to spot in your team members. If someone’s more withdrawn or distracted, you can see the slight shifts in behaviour that could be early indicators of issues. It is more complicated to spot the signs when you or they are remote, but it is still possible.

Deep listening is crucial – suspend judgement and just listen. What emotions are you picking up behind the words? What else?

For many people, especially the parents on your team, choosing to work partly from home can mask the early signs making them less noticeable.

Empathy has become recognised as a superpower for leaders and key to helping people feel understood and validated. Empathy will show your compassion and genuine concern for everyone on your team. It is a skill, and you can learn it; it starts with curiosity about how someone else may be feeling, listening to what someone’s not saying.

Don’t forget yourself amongst all of this – now it’s your turn to be asked: ‘How Are You? No, REALLY, How Are You?

You know you need to put on your oxygen mask first; you can’t pour from an empty vessel. If your resilience is low or you’re exhausted, you will need to have the resources to help others regain belief in their abilities and the optimism needed to overcome obstacles.

You are a human being who may have suffered from feeling like this yourself, now or in the past. Showing some vulnerability, along with hope and optimism, can help get more openness about how we’re all doing.