A lot has been written about the importance of having friends at work, including in a recent 2022 report from Gallup. I would guess that most people who have had work friends before, during and after the pandemic can attest to how valuable those relationships can be to support each other through the most difficult of times.

But what do you do when your work friends come to you with challenges and act as though the world is out to get them, and that they can’t do anything to prevent or fix their situations?

One option is obviously to let the friendship fizzle out, but that might be rather extreme in most cases. Another is to give them “tough love” in an attempt to push them towards self-awareness—but we all know that doesn’t always (if ever!) work.

Instead, here are three questions to ask yourself when you’re in this situation:

What do they expect, need or want from you?

When friends and other people we care about come to us with their problems, it’s only natural for us to want them to be free from those problems. We just want to take the pain away, and may instinctively want to remove the source of the problem, tell them how to solve it or “open their eyes” to what’s really going on.

But often times what we want for others isn’t what they want for themselves—at least not at the same time. I would hope no one ever wants to be in a challenging situation forever, but I can imagine that not everyone is always ready to take a real step away from it. So the next time someone comes to you with a problem and you just want to shake some sense into them, pause and ask yourself: what do they expect, need or want from me in this moment?

We all process emotions at a different speed and in a different way, so perhaps your work friend just needs to know that someone else is rooting for them. Especially if they feel like the whole world is against them, just having someone not argue them could give them the psychological safety to take that next step for introspection.

Or maybe they just need to complain about it and move on. I know I’ve had more than my share of “Vegas sessions” with my closest work friends, where I just need to complain about someone or a situation to vent my frustration and move on. One of my best work friends even often ends a “Vegas session” with “Okay, I feel better. I’m going to [do this reasonable thing] now.”

Is that something you’re okay with?

Next, ask yourself if you’re okay with what they expect/need/want from you. Sometimes, just reminding yourself that your friend needs a shoulder or to know they’re not alone is enough for us to listen to another one of the same complaint they’ve had every week for the past five years. Or, maybe you’ve had enough of it.

If you’re at the point where you need the conversation to change, consider diverting it in a way that still shows you’re listening and supportive, but also calls out the stalemate in the conversation. Something like “I’ve noticed this keeps coming up. Is there anything else I could do to support you? I feel like all of my suggestions aren’t working for you and I don’t know how I can help.” can show you want to support them and prompt them to think about what else they need.

In a world where social networks make it difficult for us to let relationships fizzle out, it may be difficult to remember that sometimes they take different shapes over time. Either way, only you can decide for yourself if you’re okay with the way your work friendship is right now.

What role did you take on in the work friendship?

In all work dynamics, we consciously or unconsciously take on different roles with the people we interact with. Take some time to ask yourself what role you may have taken in this work friendship, and if it’s one you want to continue.

For example, I had a work friend who’s boss played a mother role to her, and my friend was frustrated because any interaction she took to her boss was responded to as if she were her child—not her employee. On the other hand, I have colleagues who come to me for coaching, despite their having a competent boss they respect, because they want a different perspective to round out their experience. While it’s not part of my official responsibilities, I happily take it on because it’s a fulfilling experience for me.

In any case, work friendships need to be re-evaluated every so often to determine if they are still healthy and functional. Perhaps the work relationship is healthy overall, but just needs some fine-tuning when it comes to a specific topic. Or perhaps you’ve fallen into patterns (like my friend who’s boss saw her as a daughter) that aren’t healthy and need a bit of a reset. In either case, that is a part of the relationship you can take ownership for improving, even if you can’t help your friend’s frustrating situation itself.


It’s difficult for people who are highly empathetic not to take on someone else’s negative emotions. Remember that at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for their own choices and actions in life. If they aren’t self-aware of their situation, it’s not because you haven’t done or said something in the right way to help them. They have to be ready and willing to take those next steps to resolve a situation—until then, the most you can really do is be supportive in a way that doesn’t drain your own energy.

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