If your co-worker cried for help would you come to their rescue?

It isn't always clear when someone around you needs help. They may ask indirectly or in ways that are not obvious or explicit. It takes someone with a keen sense of empathy to recognize when someone needs support.

James Gorman, a science writer for The New York Times, recently explored Dr. Julie E. Meyers-Manor's study on the behavior of dogs and found that we can learn a lot about empathy from canines. Dr. Meyers-Manor and her colleagues conducted an experiment to assess empathy in dogs by seeing how they responded to their owners' cry for help.

The owners sat behind an easy-to-open door with a glass window so that the dogs could easily see them. The dogs reacted in a variety of ways, becoming more anxious and circling the room, opening the door to check on their owners, or going to a different door to get help.

I wondered about how this experiment might look in an office setting. If we as professionals, like the dog in the other room, pick up on subtle or obvious signs of one of our colleagues in distress, how do we respond?

Assuming we can agree anxiously circling the room is not a sustainable or productive reaction, then acting on your empathy is the obvious choice. When you are able to use your agency to assert yourself and effect change, you feel a sense of satisfaction as compared to standing by watching and unable to do anything. It can also have a positive impact on your organization.

Try these three approaches to reach out to colleagues in need and increase your own sense of agency in the process.

1. Notice direct and indirect pleas for support.

Your colleague may not want to appear weak and is embarrassed to ask for your help. As a consultant to Fortune 100 companies, I have seen plenty of signs of employee stress that surface, such as increasing absenteeism, missing deadlines and coming in late. These may be signs that your colleague is under stress and not managing it well.

You can take a moment in a private setting to inquire if everything is okay and reflect back what you have noticed. Your colleague may take you up on your offer to talk and show appreciation for reaching out. She may not have realized these behaviors were so obvious.

2. Be social and build meaningful connections.

You might be caught up in the day-to-day management of your own workload and too busy to socialize. You may also be picking up the slack of your colleague's workload as well because he is missing deadlines. Your reaction may be to hunker down and block out distractions, but this is the time to reach out and be social.

Humans are wired for social connection. Your colleague might appreciate taking a break and having coffee or lunch with you. Time away from the grind may seem like a luxury you cannot afford. However, social breaks can be energizing and help you and your colleague return to the task at hand with fresh eyes.

3. Get support from others.

Maybe you have made several attempts to turn the situation around for your colleague with no success. One reaction could be to turn away and say, "this is not my problem." While you are correct that it is personally not your problem, it does affect you professionally and that becomes your problem.

Identify the right person in your organization to speak with confidentially to share your concerns. This is what you can do after you have exercised your power or when the situation has not changed and is still a concern. It may be bigger than what you should be handling and time for someone else to step in.

You interface with so many people on a daily basis, and what affects others affects you. Knowing when others need help and being able to make a difference for them empowers you at the same time.