Your Role In Other Stuff

Divorce and other Emotional Situations – for Employees (and you personally)

With one in three marriages ending in divorce, it is highly likely that someone in your team will go through a divorce at some time. Sadly, it is even possible that that person may be you.

Equally, we also all go through other relationship breakdowns, and have to deal with other difficult family relationships with parents, siblings or children. These things are part of life.

And because life and work aren’t separate, these big things in life often impact work.

As a normal human being, our temptation when we see someone going through a tough spot in life is to ‘care’ for the person, almost in a paternal/maternal way. In the height of an emotional moment or conversation, we want to dive right in and support the person, and that’s a really nice thing to do, but it may not always be the best thing to do.

Equally, if it’s you in the tough situation, it may not always be the best thing, especially in the long term, for you to have the whole team involved in every intimate detail of the worst times in your life. It’s one thing having a great friend or two at work, but quite another if everyone knows your business and you become quite famous for that particular problem or issue, as opposed to everything else you have to offer.

In dealing with highly emotional situations, here’s some things to consider

  1. Some of these highly emotional issues, particularly separations, can be akin to grief.
  2. The process of resolving the issue or relationship will rarely be linear.
  3. There are often long term implications, so always think as long term as possible
  4. Every person and situation is different
  5. You need to consider yourself, the other person and the team


As a colleague, you can do three things to support a colleague going through a tough situation –

  1. Care
  2. Offer sustainable support
  3. Make work OK


And you can avoid three things –

  1. Getting caught up in the moment
  2. Offering open-ended support
  3. Letting this individual issue crash the team or the work you’re doing together


If it’s you, that is directly involved, hard as it might be, try and think of these things –

  1. Hold your personal story for just a few close friends at work, not everyone
  2. Manage your requests for time off so that you hold some time for unexpected things
  3. Keep your reputation attached to everything you are, not just this event


© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

Let’s look at the things to consider in a little more detail –

  1. Some of these highly emotional issues, particularly separations, can be akin to grief

It’s important to understand the seriousness of some of these issues. They can be like grief, and they can also lead to real anger and frustration. They can bring into question a person’s whole perception of their identity. Unless you’re a qualified counsellor or psychologist, you can be aware of these emotions and respect them, without attempting to resolve them or offer personal advice.


  1. The process of resolving the issue or relationship will rarely be linear.

It’s important not to expect that a serious issue will be resolved in a short set timeframe or ‘as planned’. They can take months or even years to resolve fully, if ever, and different things may prompt unexpected emotion.


  1. There are often long term implications, so think long term

This is important to remember because it will better frame what level of support you may be able to offer. A divorce, for example, may start as a highly emotional separation, but beyond that could take years to resolve through counselling, courts and custody disputes. For family issues, there may also be ongoing issues such as moving house. The bottom line to remember is that the really emotional situations in life are rarely resolved in a few weeks. You’re often talking weeks, months, or even years. If you’re a close friend, the request for your support could be ongoing. If it’s you that is involved, you may be asking colleagues and your business to support you, or cover for you, for meetings many months after the actual event.


  1. Every person and situation is different

Recognising that each situation and person is unique means you don’t assume your own experience or way of dealing with things is normal. When we hear someone’s story, it’s so easy to think ‘I know how this goes. I’ve been through it myself,” when in reality not only is the situation unique, but so too will be the person’s individual way of dealing with it.


  1. You need to consider yourself, the other person and the team

You need to keep the whole picture in mind. You may want to support the individual, but equally, every person, including yourself will be dealing with their issues. There’s a balance between empathy and care for the person, and having their difficult situation become the only conversation anyone is having at work. If it’s a very difficult situation, the individual may need professional support, such as counselling. As a work colleague, you can play a role in making sure that one individual’s situation doesn’t derail them. You can also play a role in making sure the issue doesn’t derail the team, the work you’re doing, and even the business.

In considering yourself, you need to be aware of your own mental well-being.

If it’s you that is personally involved, you need to try and manage work and life as best as you possibly can. Be considerate of your work colleagues and their support, but don’t expect more than they have the capacity to give. And don’t make every team conversation all about your personal issue.


Now, let’s look at what you can do to support. These are the three things you can do –

  1. Care

We describe CARE as Connected, Authentic, Respectful and Empathetic. It’s a good place to start when dealing with someone who’s in a difficult situation. Be close enough to appreciate they’re in a tough spot, and listen to their issue. Be honest with your respect and empathy for what they’re dealing with. CARE also works as ‘Care’ too. Just care about the human being in front of you. Right now, they’d appreciate someone caring.

If it’s you involved, be appreciative of the care of your colleagues and your leader. Say Thank you. Notice that people are trying to help.


  1. Offering sustainable support

Knowing someone is in a difficult spot usually means you appreciate they need some support. You need to offer a level of support that is a balance between supporting the person, and ensuring they re-find their own strength, and their own way through the issue. If you overwhelm them with your support, to some degree, you’re making them someone to pity and feel sorry for. If that’s all your talk about, they’ll become someone no one wants to spend time with. It’s a balance. Care, but don’t smother.


  1. Make work OK

This may well be THE most important thing you can do –  Make work OK when everything else is not.

Luckily, it’s also one of the things you have the most control over.

So, let’s think about this – Something in my life has gone really badly. I’m upset and potentially overwhelmed by the situation. My mental and physical well-being may be impacted. Despite all that, two things are true. Firstly, financially, I’ll almost always need to work. Secondly, I will find a way through the issue to a better space again. In short, “work” may be part of the solution not part of the problem. Maybe not immediately, but certainly in the not too distant future.

And that’s a great way to think about work – Making it an island in a sea of sad or bad.

You may be able to make work a constant when other things in life are uncertain or disrupted.

This can be a delicate balance. You don’t want to dismiss the difficult issue or make it feel like work is the only thing that matters, but you do need to make it feel like a consistent commitment you’ve all signed up for, something they can rely on as they work through everything else. You can demonstrate that you understand that everything might not be ‘normal’ right at the moment, and that the individual might not be incredibly efficient or productive right now, but equally that they might be too, and either way is fine by you and supported by you. Sometimes people work through really difficult circumstances as an awesome employee – incredibly efficient and productive. They might use work as the best part of a really bad patch in their life. In these cases, as a colleague, just be there and make work as much fun as you can.

So, your position as a colleague is that whilst you’re genuinely caring and empathetic, you’re also confident that they will deal with their difficult circumstance, and you support them to get back to a good space.


Finally, the three things to absolutely avoid are important –

  1. Getting caught up in the moment

Faced with some emotional situations, it is so easy to get caught up in the moment. You will have either been through these times yourself, or you will have supported a friend of family member through them. It’s tempting to offer advice. It’s tempting to tell your own story, even to ‘one up’ the person with your own version or experience. Or to explain how it ends, by explaining how it worked for you or for your friend. All these responses can feel like empathy in the heat of the emotional moment, but none may be particularly useful in the long term.


Each person has to find their own way through a difficult situation. You can be comforting, without telling people what to do. They’re not you, or your friend, or your brother. You don’t know how their story lands or ends. Listen to their story, but don’t be patronising about your ability or experience in dealing with the same issue. This is their story, not yours. It might actually be much healthier for the person to have work as somewhere where the difficulty is respected, but not the complete frame of how everyone is seeing them. They’re still a good person, doing a good job, an important part of the team, and not ‘the person going through a divorce’.


  1. Offering open-ended support

The most common mistake people make in these highly emotional situations is to offer open-ended ‘whatever you need’ support. In the heat of the moment, this offer is made with the best intent. The person appreciates you being there and they fill you in on every detail.

You can become the enabler for making the difficult situation the only topic of conversation the person has. You can also take on the role of representing the person, and their difficult issue, to the team and to the team leader. While there are times when, as a close work friend, you can do this, it is not a sustainable role to be constantly representing someone else. Eventually, they need to represent themselves and you need to represent you. A good team is a team of equals, where you each bring yourself to work, not one of you bringing everyone else. You want to be confidently interdependent on each other, not have one person completely reliant on everyone else.

Good people and a good team will often stretch to cover and support a colleague for a short time – a day or two – but it isn’t a long-term way to work, and if you cover for someone for an extended period, it may start to feel unfair or you may get plain exhausted from carrying more than a fair load.


  1. Letting the individual issue crash the team or the work you’re doing

Of all the things to avoid, this one is perhaps the most important. It takes energy and time to build momentum and great relationships across a team or a business, one where everyone is confident, comfortable and able to give their best. It can take one person or a very short period of time, to bring it all undone. This can happen when an individual is away from work for extended period, and the team have to cover the extra work. It can equally happen when the individual’s difficult circumstance or issue becomes the only conversation in the workplace. The team, assuming you’re good people and care about your colleague, (which is normal) will be happy to hear about the person’s story and to lean in and offer some support. They won’t want that to be the only conversation in the office every day, or over lunch every day. When the story is the only conversation for weeks or even months, you will all feel zapped. When we’re all dealing with ‘stuff’ all the time, no one has the energy to only deal with someone else’s issue every day. When you have someone who brings their issue to work, and expects it to be the centre of every conversation every day, the rest of the team will become exhausted and jaded.


All that momentum and energy you’ve worked together to inspire and build, will dissipate, and you’ll need to find a whole load of extra energy to rebuild it.

As a close colleague who cares, you might be able to raise the conversation with the individual, to stop their issue being the only conversation with the team. This means being close enough to know that that has happened, close enough to know the team is exhausted by it, and close enough to be honest with the person about sharing the conversation across everyone’s topics and issues, and also across more positive and interesting things after a while.

Again, this one is a difficult balance, but it’s achievable if you’re honest and really connected to your colleague.


More Personally, if it’s you, that is directly involved, hard as it might be, try and think of these things –

  1. Hold your personal story for just a few close friends at work, not everyone

You’re dealing with something really big, and we all know this can be pretty overwhelming. The story will rise and fall, and change, and you’ll have different opinions of people in your story along the way. Relationships that break, can bruise badly, and create a lot of bad blood for months and then settle into an acceptable shared way forward, as is often the case for people divorcing. They start angry or sad, and end with well-intentioned co-parenting relationships. In a different example, within a family, small things might become huge during tough times, like immediately after the death of a parent or grandparent. Eventually, they almost always settle and you rebuild your relationships with your siblings. As that story unfolds, you don’t want every person you work with to know every step of that journey. And you don’t want people knowing you only by that difficult story – “the woman or man that went through a bad divorce”.  You want to be known for your work, your expertise, your leadership, your other interests, your new relationships, or a hundred other things you are interested in talking about.

Keep the details of your difficult situation for a small group of close friends at work, or even away from work. Most people at work have got their own tough stuff going on, and they’ll be able to hear briefly about yours and support you, but not every tiny detail. Think about how you want most people at work to think about you in the long term.


  1. Manage your requests for time off so that you hold some time for unexpected things

When something terrible happens, it’s often tempting to just hit the couch and stay there. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly tough situation, your leader will offer you time off – “take as long as you need” – and it’s tempting to take a few weeks, or even a few months. Problem is that that time period you take off burns through your credibility. Once you’re back at work, more stuff might happen – custody hearings after a divorce, or tidying up a house to sell post a separation – and you will need extra time away from work. Working itself might be even more important than ever now that you’re a sole provider for your family, for example. Whatever the circumstances, you want to think long term. Keep some credibility (and time) in the bank. Keep your job safe and your reputation intact. You don’t want work to go badly as well, and add “losing your job” or “missing out on opportunities” to an already tough spot in your life.


  1. Keep your reputation attached to everything you are, not just this event

You’re dealing with serious life-changing situations and don’t forget that. Take care of yourself and be a little gentle with yourself, but try and keep your work reputation, a little separate if you can.

Your work reputation is about your skills, your experience, your attitude, your collaboration and teamwork, and your level of commitment. It’s multi-faceted, and you’ve worked hard to build it, so now, keep it safe. Keep your reputation about all the good stuff you have done, can do, and will want to do in the future.

People will hear about tough situations a person is experiencing, and they’ll be interested and concerned for you, but you don’t want to make that the only conversation about you at work. You don’t want your dealing with one tough situation to overtake your efforts around everything else you’ve done at work.


© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

At work, there are few of us that are experts in divorce or family disruptions or other emotionally charged life events. You may have had your own life experiences, but you’re not expected to be a fully qualified counsellor. You’re expected to care and support your colleagues, but you’re also expected to do a great job and to look after the rest of the team and make sure everyone is doing OK. You have to keep your own work, the team’s work, and ultimately the business, all humming along.

That said, if you’re working with someone who is particularly badly impacted by divorce or another serious emotional disruption in their life, you can also read up and gain a better appreciation of the trauma. As we’ve know, people can have a reaction similar to grief when faced with divorce or separation, or it can bring a person’s whole identity into question, so there are many times when professional support is not only helpful, but potentially essential.

If you’re the person dealing with the difficult or highly emotional situation, you’re probably already seeking support external to work, or from professional counsellors. If you’re not, and it does get overwhelming, then  we strongly suggest you do reach out to your doctor or to organisations like BeyondBlue or Relationships NSW to provide good guidance.

Here’s a couple of articles that deepen understanding and perhaps give you some guidance on where best to refer a person on your team for more professional support, or where you might personally seek more professional support –








© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

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