• Emily Pringle

Tips for supporting a colleague through divorce

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

Supporting a colleague who’s going through personal turmoil can be a tricky workplace scenario to navigate. Rather than avoid it though, look to reach out and offer support.

When you do reach out to offer your support, remember to respect your colleague’s boundaries and let him or her take the lead on how much he or she wants to disclose.

If you stick to some general principles (below), you’ll have a balance of support and respect. And, in the long term, you’ll strengthen both your personal and working relationship with that person, delivering better results ultimately for you all.

1. Show that you’re approachable

When you don’t know what to say, something simple yet heartfelt—like, “I’m sorry to hear your news”—can be just what your colleague needs to hear.

And it’s absolutely OK to let your colleague know you’re there for them if they want to talk about what’s going on.

2. Assure them that confiding in you is OK

Reassure them that they can talk to you in confidence and that nothing will go any further. And never break the trust. Do not discuss anything with anyone else without their consent.

3. Invite them for a coffee or drink, or go for a walk or run together

Newly separated people are lonely people. They are operating in a fog, like a semi-permanent daze. They need interaction with friends ad colleagues. We spend most of our lives at work, so even a half hour a day is helpful.

4. Don’t try to give unsolicited advice

It’s meant in the best way, but it’s not what someone necessarily needs to hear. Whilst you think you are helping by offering advice to your struggling co-worker—particularly if you’ve been there before—focus on supporting, not preaching. Unless they specifically ask for your advice, don’t offer it. The aim is to make your colleague feel comfortable and cared for, and to understand how they are feeling, so that you can help them in a work capacity.

5. Offer help in specific ways

Avoid offering vague statements like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” or asking, “How can I help?” These blanket sentiments place a burden on the struggling person to make an effort to generate ideas for you, and chances are, your colleague may feel uncomfortable asking for help from another colleague. Instead, try to be proactive and show you’re willing to help by offering assistance in specific, concrete ways, such as, “I’m going to get a sandwich – can I get you anything?” or, “I’m calling xx, do you want me to mention anything for you?”

Simple gestures like these can provide a huge amount of relief for your colleague. And, by offering something specific that you are doing anyway, you won’t get overloaded with tasks that you don’t have the capacity for.

6. Don’t try to be bright and breezy all the time

Every person experiences life’s highs and lows differently, and it’s important to respect your colleague’s unique coping process—whatever that entails.

Whilst you will have good intentions, your optimism can inadvertently make it seem like you’re downplaying or trivialising the matter, which can make the situation even worse for your colleague. A different strategy is to help him or her feel heard and understood by empathising with them about their situation. By validating your colleague’s struggles, yet remaining neutral, you’ll help them feel comfortable opening up to you. At the same time, you minimise the risk of alienating them by making him feel like they are overreacting or not handling things the way they should.