Q. It’s become clear that one of my direct reports is going through a personal crisis, most likely an eating disorder and associated breakdown. My approach has been to leave her alone — because her personal life is not my business — but it’s begun to affect her work. How can I help her to deal with this issue while mitigating the effect it has on our workplace?

A. There are three problems here: your associate is weathering a difficult time; it’s getting in the way of her work; and she has no one to turn to in the office for support. This last issue is the fault of the organisation and her boss: you. 

You’ve created a divide between personal and professional lives. 

Clearly, your office culture has discouraged people from drawing close to one another and building trust. That’s a problem, because you’ve created a divide between personal and professional lives. What you ought to be doing is drawing a finer distinction between the intimate and the personal, said John Paul Rollert, an adjunct assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

The intimate details of people’s lives should be kept out of the workplace, but personal lives — which can range from a colleague’s son’s soccer game all the way to the situation you’re describing — often impact work. “If you have that strict professional-personal divide, it always is awkward to talk about this,” said Rollert, who teaches business ethics. 

If you have that strict professional-personal divide, it always is awkward to talk about this.

First, have a confidential conversation with your HR department, to find out what legal and corporate-policy guidelines exist. What you don’t want is to extend a helping hand only to find that your employee is taking your overtures as intrusive, discriminatory or otherwise objectionable.

Budget some time for a one-on-one talk. Take your employee aside privately and say you’d like to help. Listen to anything she wants to tell you about her troubles. Then have a gentle but frank conversation about what she’s going through and its effect on the company and on your team. What you’re going for is what Rollert dubs the 3C’s: care, candor and confidentiality.

You can’t force her to disclose details that she would rather not share, but you have to explain to her that her personal issues are hurting both her own work and that of the team.  She likely doesn’t realise that this is happening, or even that anyone at the office has guessed what’s going on with her. That’s common with people in traumatic situations, Rollert said: “They put on blinders to the effect they have on other people.”

Use specific examples and data to illustrate how the team’s work is slipping. Then propose solutions, concentrating on any accommodations you could make to ease the burden on your employee, he said. You could also suggest that the employee makes use of any help offered at your organisation, for example a mental health hotline or in-house counsellor, if available.

You can’t force her to disclose details that she would rather not share. 

Ideally you can have this conversation before things get out of hand. If your best option is offering to help your employee get medical care or check into a hospital, “that's a radical management failure,” Rollert said.  But don’t let the situation progress to that point. Start now.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at work_ethic@bbc.com.

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