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I am working in a team of 20 people, in which we all get along quite well.

One of our colleagues has a very heavy workload he cannot share, and has had a few professional setbacks lately, and is taking it very personally.

We, as a group can feel he's suffering, and on the verge of burning out.

A process exists within the company to handle this kind of situation, and involves HR, management, union reps, and so on.

We approached our colleague to let him know we noticed, we cared, and were ready to help him in any way we can. He saw us coming from a thousand miles, and specifically asked us to not start the 'suffering at work' process.

We are pondering going on with the process anyway.

A clarification, as many comments assume a company with a "suffering at work" process can't be that oblivious; it is a legal obligation to have such a process in France

To what extent, and under which conditions should a suffering colleague be helped against his will?

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    If your employer has gone to the trouble of creating this "suffering at work procedure", it would be rather surprising if they didn't also have a direct answer to this question somewhere in their policy documentation. – Daniel Hatton Nov 6 '20 at 10:55
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    @DanielHatton "If you're unsure, discuss the situation with HR". If this place taught me one thing, it is that HR is not my friend, nor is it my co-worker's... – Jean-Pierre Nov 6 '20 at 10:58
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    I didn't suggest discussing the situation with HR, I suggested reading the policy documentation. – Daniel Hatton Nov 6 '20 at 11:11
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    @DanielHatton The policy says discuss with HR :) – Jean-Pierre Nov 6 '20 at 11:12
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    Ah, sorry, I misunderstood the use of double quotes in your previous comment. – Daniel Hatton Nov 6 '20 at 11:36
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The obligatory "HR is not your friend" comment has already been dropped in the comments. But that doesn't automatically equate to "never tell HR anything".

It is possible that the colleague is aware of their situation and knows that the "suffering at work" treatment isn't the solution. The source of their current stress could be of a personal nature, and unrelated to their work. Maybe you just notice that he is struggling, but are wrongly attributing it to work as opposed to other things you do not know about.
It's not the colleague's responsibility to inform you of any personal issues they may or may not be having.

On the other hand, people on the verge of burnouts are not the best judges of themselves (I can speak from personal experience here). First of all, they are likely to continue the behavior that drove them on the verge of a burnout since it's what got them there in the first place; and secondly, the impending burnout may be affecting their self-awareness even further.

There is an argument to be made to talk to HR, not just for the colleague's benefit, but also the company's benefit. If this person's work cannot be done by others, and they're on the verge of a burnout, that's going to cause problems for the company too. Addressing this before they actually burn out is a win-win-win for the colleague, the company, and any concerned coworkers.

Let's look at it another way. Let's say this colleague is needlessly performing a dangerous task, e.g. not wearing their helmet on a construction site. It could cause harm to them. On top of that, as an essential worker the company/project would suffer from their absence as they cannot be easily replaced. But the colleague tells you to let him be. Would you?
Whether it's mental harm or physical harm, the principle of the thing remains the same.

Personally, I would talk to management in an unofficial capacity. Not to officially start the "suffering at work" procedure, but rather to address a concern that you are not sure of. I suggest to specifically stress that you're not sure whether there is a problem or not, since that is the actual truth.

If the company then decides to start the "suffering at work" procedure on their own, that means that they could've also done this by themselves if they had been the ones to notice the coworker's current state of mind and singlehandedly concluded that this is an impending burnout.
In other words, you're only sharing your observations and genuine concerns with the company. It's the company who decides to start the procedure.

To what extent, and under which conditions should a suffering colleague be helped against his will?

If it is conclusively provable that he is in fact burning out due to his work, then there is a moral argument to act in the best interest of the coworker - as far as you're legally allowed.
But mental distress is usually not provable unless investigated/treated, so this may be an impossible option for this particular scenario.

If it's an unproven concern (no matter if the group all shares that concern or not), then you should at most discuss your concern rather than their problem. Don't run to the manager claiming that there is a problem.
Simply share your observations and ask the manager if they've observed similar things, and that you (as a group) are willing to help out. Let the company take it from there.

It seems to me like you're in the latter category here.


Regardless of whether you address this with the company or not, I agree with Phillip's suggestion about working at increasing the bus factor. It may help the colleague, but even if it doesn't it's still something that should be done purely for the company's (and employees') best interest.

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Rule #1: you cannot help someone who doesn't want to be helped. That isn't anything specific to the workplace, it's just a fact of life. If your colleague doesn't want to start the "suffering at work" process, there's no point forcing it, because 1) it will only cause resentment and 2) it won't add any value.

So what can you do? The obvious thing to me is to do something about the fact that your colleague's work "cannot" be shared - your company has created a bus factor of one. If your colleague does burn out to the level where they cannot work (i.e. were hit by the metaphorical bus), what are you going to do? Find a way to train up some other people on their work - you've then both increased the bus factor, and found a way to reduce their load.

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    Completely agree with your second paragraph, our management does not. The "suffering at work" process may, by involving unions, HR and higher management get us out of the status quo (that's what it exists for) – Jean-Pierre Nov 6 '20 at 11:23
  • By training others, doesn't that reduce the bus factor? – Solar Mike Nov 7 '20 at 6:54
  • "Rule #1: you cannot help someone who doesn't want to be helped. " While I'm aware that this is an extreme application, if you take this rule to heart you'd then also argue that suicide shouldn't be prevented. I'm not trying to be extreme to force an argument, but I am trying to point out that your rule has a notable caveat for anyone whose self-judgment is possibly impaired. Burnout, and the stress that precedes it, is such an impaired state. People who burn out are liable to be furthering the unhealthy behavior that got them there in the first place. They don't see the cause and effect – Flater Nov 7 '20 at 11:31
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    @SolarMike: The bus factor is expressed as how many people can get run over by a bus before the workload is affected. The higher the number, the better. – Flater Nov 7 '20 at 11:32
  • Obviously, direct management knows, but does not / cannot do anything about it. And, as the 'bus factor limitation' is more a matter of red tape (this guy has access to highly sensitive data, so background check, and so on...) than training, so there is nothing we can do without higher-ups approval. – Jean-Pierre Nov 7 '20 at 15:06
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Phillips answer is great, it explains the problem and the solution. My addition is regarding your actions to be taken in light of you being just a colleague.

Should we help a colleague against his will?

No, you should mind your own business.

Going to management and discussing colleagues problems isn't something you should do especially when expressly asked not to. The manager should already be aware of an issue like this, that's their job. Why potentially alienate a colleague and indirectly tell a manager they're not doing their job properly?

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    It isn't just the colleague's problem. If he's the only one who can do his job, and he's on the verge of burning out, that's going to create a problem for the company too. While it may seem selfish for the company to help this colleague for their own benefit, it's a genuine win-win in this scenario. Also, addressing a concern is not inherently telling a manager they're not doing their job properly (imagine how offended a doctor would be if a patient returned for a second consult... not). Anyone can miss something, the employee's impending burnout might only be noticeable by their direct peers. – Flater Nov 7 '20 at 11:08
  • @Flater It's a colleague, not the 'company'.... there are benefits for the company, and the manager.... but they're not asking the question. – Kilisi Nov 7 '20 at 13:01
  • And the close-to-burnout colleage isn't asking this question either. One does not need to be the one asking a question in order for something to be in their best interest. How does this change what I said? – Flater Nov 7 '20 at 16:46
  • @Flater no idea, I'm fine with you downvoting – Kilisi Nov 7 '20 at 18:42

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