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When do you know it’s time to ask for help in the workplace?

Although this may sound like a simple and obvious question, it’s perhaps one we don’t ask enough. We just assume people will ask for help when they need it.


Many workplaces encourage asking questions and seeking help such as guidance in dealing with a customer issue. However, many employees may not be as comfortable asking for help related to a personal challenge.

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Let’s put the reasons an employee may ask for help into two categories:

  • Professional – This is work-related only, such as career advice to solve a problem with a manager.
  • Personal – This is not related to work, such as support from an employer to deal with a family or health issue.

The two categories are distinct. What’s similar is that the perceived level of social support in the workplace will influence an employee’s degree of comfort to approach peers, managers or human resources.

Help-seeking is dependent on three factors: willingness to ask, intention to ask, and asking.

Investing time and energy in building healthy and safe social connections in the workplace helps create a level of comfort for asking for help – either professional or personal – when needed. As well, a preparation step may involve discovering what kinds of help resources your organization has. These may include employee and family assistance programs, and coverage for psychological services. Legal and community resources may also be available.


One factor that prevents some from asking for help is fear of being rejected or judged. Stigma is real, and some people don’t ask for help, whether under the professional or personal category, because they don’t want to appear weak.

Accepting that we all likely will need help at some point and that it’s normal gives us permission to ask for it. Learning how to seek and accept help is like any other skill: It takes confidence. It also can take tolerance and patience, because it may be necessary to ask a few times for the help we need.

In some circumstances, we may know we need and want help, but getting the right kind can be a process. Some people stop asking for help because of a bad experience. Perhaps they went to a counsellor but were not satisfied with the results, which led to stereotyping all counsellors as unhelpful.

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It is important to learn to accept that sometimes it may take more than one attempt. Persistence and focus may be necessary.


Whether you’re seeking help for professional challenges such as looking for more career mobility or personal challenges like feeling overwhelmed by your workload, you need to be clear on what you need and whom you will ask for help.

Coaching tips:

  • Identify helpers – Find the people in your workplace you feel comfortable asking to help you. Anticipate the kind of external work resources you may need to engage to solve a personal problem. These may include psychologists, professional counsellors, lawyers and accountants. It’s much easier looking for resources when you’re calm and don’t need them, rather than when you’re in a crisis and emotions are high.
  • Have a Plan B – We all, in times of need, can feel stressed trying to get access to the resources we need to help us. It can be helpful to accept that a helper we want may not be available or may end up not being as helpful as we had hoped. One strategy is to have a Plan B, just in case Plan A doesn’t work out.

The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at This series of articles supports the award.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2019 at this link.

Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

You can find other stories like these at

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