Asking for help is hard. In a society where self-reliance is valued so highly, we are embracing vulnerability when we admit that we can’t do it alone. Through asking for help, we are openly admitting that we don’t have all the resources to do it ourselves. As social psychologist Heidi Grant says, “… the social threats involved—the uncertainty, risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and inherent relinquishing of autonomy—activate the same brain regions that physical pain does”. And all of these social threats are multiplied when we find ourselves needing help at work, a place where we want to be viewed as capable and competent above all else.

Despite all of this, there is little evidence to show that others think badly of us when we ask for help. In fact, research shows that people might actually like us more after they complete a favour for us. In a workplace where collaboration is paramount, it’s important to create a culture of helping. So, where do we start if we want to enhance workplace health by helping?

How do I ask for help?

  • If you’re not sure of the best way to ask for help from someone, start by trying to emphasise something that you both share: a shared goal that you are both trying to achieve, a shared trait, or a shared experience. For example, you could mention how their help will further your progress towards a team project, or how the task reminds you of a challenge that you’ve both tackled in the past. Through including reminders of something that each of you share, you are reinforcing that you’re on the same team. Reminders such as these serve as a way of increasing a sense of belonging and ”togetherness”, that are vital to workplace health.
  • Highlight the unique position that the other person is in to provide help. Through emphasising the unique qualities that they have to help you with your specific problem, you are helping to create a positive identity for them. One way to further boost their positive identity is to offer gratitude for the task in advance of them doing it. Offer your pre-emptive thanks in your email or emphasise their generosity in even considering your request. All this works to underline their positive characteristics rather than making the request solely about what you stand to gain.
  • Where possible, remind them of a time they’ve helped in the past and the positive outcome that this generated. Or, just tell them exactly how their help will help to achieve a specific goal. This caters to a human desire for our actions to be worthwhile and effective. Focusing on the effectiveness of their help will assure them that their assistance will matter. Also, try to follow up after they’ve helped you to let them know the outcomes of that assistance. This will all work to increase the chance that they’ll want to help you again.

How do I help others?

  • Create a culture of helping in your workplace, as recommended by the Harvard Business Review. Establish a norm where people ask for, and provide, help to colleagues. You can achieve this by encouraging employees to suggest ways that they can help others in team meetings, or to do a round-circle where each team member verbalises something that they need help with each week. The simplest way to create this culture of helping is to model helping behaviour yourself. Be receptive and gracious when you receive queries for assistance from others and be open about your need to get help yourself.
  • Consider the way that you offer help to those who need it. While it can be tempting to immediately provide help when you see someone struggling, one recent study found that “reactive helping” (providing help when requested) had stronger links with recipient gratitude than did “proactive helping” (providing help without being asked). This gratitude was also associated with prosocial impact and work engagement the next day. This research tells us that it’s important to create a compassionate environment where people are able and willing to ask for help. Or, when proactive helping is necessary, we can show respect and empathy by providing the scaffolding for co-workers to discover the solution themselves, rather than giving them the solution outright.
  • Be sociable and build meaningful connections in your workplace. In a time where more and more people are choosing to work remotely – and increasingly may be required to do so – the opportunities for social interaction are becoming fewer. You can foster a culture of helping and workplace health through the simple act of getting to know your colleagues. If you notice that someone is struggling, invite them out of the office for a cup of coffee and ask them how they are doing. Or book a videoconference call with them when there’s time to chat, not just to focus on work. Building these meaningful connections can facilitate a sense of closeness where co-workers will recognise your willingness to help and approach you proactively.