When personal problems come to work, seek expert help

Help Desk
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Dear Help Desk

My colleague is going through a divorce, has financial difficulties and many other personal problems. At first I was really sympathetic, listened and, where I could, offered advice. She quite often comes to work in floods of tears and it has now got to the stage where her problems are disrupting the rest of the office. She has even taken to calling me and other colleagues at home. It is beginning to really get me down and I don't know what to do about it.

Janet, Middlesex

Andrew G Marshall, Live TV agony aunt:

Congratulations on being such a supportive colleague. However, you have discovered the limit to just how much help you can provide. Feeling swamped is a good sign that you need stronger boundaries. Your friend has been so traumatised by her marriage breakdown that she has no boundaries at all. You don't want to abandon her but you need to set limits. There is no point having a "good long talk" about how you are feeling because this will only make her defensive - instead you can model good boundaries for her. Next time she tries to share her problems during work hours, follow your a,b,c. Address: I'm sorry to hear that", Bridge: "I can't stop now because I've got a report that is due in shortly." Communicate: "However, we could have coffee after work tonight." When you finally do have your talk, like a therapist would, set time limits - "I have to collect the children in half an hour." Try and concentrate on immediate problems (what to say to the solicitor tomorrow?) and don't let her be distracted by long-term ones (will I ever find love again?). Not only will you feel better and be less likely to be overwhelmed by her grief, you will send an example to her subconscious about appropriate boundaries. Be firm; what your friend needs now is less sympathy and a little more tough love.

Denise Knowles, Relate counsellor:

It is always sad when a relationship runs into difficulties. The problems your colleague is experiencing at home are bound to affect her work. There appears to be more than just her problems being discussed in your letter. It is perfectly natural for anyone to want to help another human being in distress but unfortunately limits have been reached and boundaries crossed. When personal problems start to cause disruption in the workplace it is time to be pro-active. By being there and at the end of the phone you are colluding with this colleague; no matter how well intentioned, your help is preventing her from taking personal responsibility for sorting out her own problems. If you become "down" then you will be of little use to her or yourself, so you need to be firm about what kind of support you are willing to continue to give. Everyone has limitations and it sounds as if you have reached yours. Perhaps you could find out what help your employers can provide. Some organisations have in-house counselling facilities. Your colleague is frightened and sounds confused, she needs to lessen her confusion by talking to a professional who can be objective. Suggest she seek out Relate (look in phone directory for local number) or see her GP. If you don't take some action you will start to resent this colleague and that could have an effect on your working relationship long after her personal problems are resolved. She has to take responsibility and you can enable that by supporting the efforts she makes. By doing this you are protecting yourself and helping her to develop necessary coping strategies. Good luck.

Clive Fletcher, Professor of Occupational Psychology, Goldsmiths' College:

Clearly, your colleague's problems have got to the point where sympathy alone is not enough - she needs more professional and practical help than you can provide. Her work must be suffering a lot more than yours, and in due course this may well lead to additional problems for her. Contact your personnel department and explain the situation, without naming your distressed colleague, and ask for their advice and assistance; they may offer to see her on a confidential basis. Then talk to her - maybe with another person she trusts in the office - and suggest, gently, that she should contact personnel about her difficulties. If she is reluctant to talk about it to someone within the company - though by now it sounds like most people will have heard about it - encourage her to go for counselling outside, which is often available through her GP clinic. She needs to know that you feel this is the right thing to do, and that while her colleagues are still supportive, there is a limit to what they can cope with.

Compiled by Carmen Fielding

If you would like expert advice about a work problem, write to Helpdesk, City+, Features, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London. E14 5DL: Fax 0171-293 2182 or e-mail C.Fielding@Independent.co.uk.