Q: Dear Heather,
One of my co-workers has hit a rough patch in her personal life. She just ended a three-year relationship, is taking it very hard and apparently has little family/friend support. She is a very committed to her job and takes on extra projects on a regular basis. The boyfriend didn't seem very important in her life (I only met him twice), and I'm kind of surprised she's taking it so hard. The problem is she has started calling me in the evening fairly regularly. I don't think she has much going on outside of work and is pretty lonely. I feel really bad for her and consider her a friend, but my husband is getting annoyed and I guess I am too a little. I want to help her but need my family time after work. Any suggestions?
A: Your compassion is commendable. Human connection is what makes it all worthwhile, as your friend is discovering in a painfully tangible way. But in this case it's unacceptable because it is at the expense of your most valuable human connection -- your family. Because her present imbalance has the potential of impacting your own work/life balance, you need to sketch in some boundaries fairly quickly.
You are her chosen life preserver. While your empathy is a good thing, keep in mind that life preservers are not intended for use as extended support. They are temporary flotation devices designed to transport a weakened party from an unstable position to where they can stand on their own two feet. The key word is "temporary." You need to view this as a short-term situation and devise specific steps to help your friend without negatively impacting your family.
You may feel a temptation to set her up with one of your husband's poker buddies (Jim's single and hasn't been arrested in two years). Fight it. This is a very bad idea as it has the potential of doubling those late night phone calls. Bandaging one broken relationship with another rarely does more than create another bandage-able situation.
Instead, help your co-worker begin to establish the balance that has apparently been lacking in her own life. She needs friends and outside interests. Fortunately, those are often a two-for-one. Encourage her to explore the world beyond your office. Offer to accompany her to couple of networking or interest-specific events where she can make new connections to build upon.
Next, establish "help" zones that won't jeopardize your family life. Let her know you want to talk when you are best able to focus, and that your evenings are too hectic for you to give her full attention. Can you give her your ear at a weekly breakfast or lunch? Maybe meet her for an endorphin-amped workout at the gym?
Finally, do not be afraid to suggest professional counseling: "I really want to help you, but I don't have all the answers. This is hard, painful stuff. I think you deserve the kind of knowledge and guidance a professional counselor could give you."
Keep the compassion, but don't allow it to override your primary obligations to your family. Don't abandon your co-worker/friend, but don't be a sled dog either. Your role is not to rescue, but to facilitate your co-worker's rescue of herself while still retaining that critical balance in your own life.
If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!