One of my best employees has recently broken up with his girlfriend (3 weeks ago) and it's now starting to affect his work performance.

I have tried to ask him what is wrong but he does not want to share.

The person here is a very close friend of mine, I have been his leader since he was in his first year of college and he has been performing exceptionally ever since. Since he has got into this relationship, I have seen his performance grow as well as his character and I was very happy about this. But after this ended, it looks like it took a turn for the worst.

How can I help him and also improve his performance?

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    You said the guy doesn't want to share the reason why his performance is affected, but in the previous sentence you write it was due to a break up. Are you certain that's the reason? How do you know that? Apr 3, 2018 at 17:29
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    How badly is his performance affected? You said he's "High performing", how would you rate him now? Average? Below average? How long is that going on? Just asking because I would expect pretty much anybody to be less focused at work when such a thing occurs. Is is worse than to be expected? How much worse?
    – nvoigt
    Apr 5, 2018 at 17:15
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    What do you mean by "high performance"? I have seen some people define that as working long hours which very well could have been why he broke up.
    – Rob Rose
    Apr 8, 2018 at 1:16

8 Answers 8


Simple answer: You can't

More complex answer:

This is something your employee needs to work through like any other loss. You can give him an unofficial notice that it's affecting his work and recommend taking some time off, but that's about it.

If you decide to go that route then do it in a friendly manner, quietly, one on one, and off the record. That small gesture showing that you care can mean more than you think. As one of the primary reasons employees leave is the feeling that the company doesn't care, this will probably make him an even higher performer when he bounces back. He'll remember the kindness you show him now.

Then, back off a bit. Since this is a high-performer, first evaluate if he's still performing at an acceptable level. If he is, then just wait it out. If he's making mistakes, then the push for some time off may need to take a more official stance.

Look Dave, you're a great worker and I appreciate all that you've done. Because of that, I'm going to strongly suggest that you take some time off ASAP. I don't want to lose you and I don't want your next review to take a hit because you're going through a rough patch. I understand that this is a personal matter for you and you don't want to talk about it. Take some time off to get through this. Your job will still be here.

Then, a simple "If you want to talk, I'll listen" can work wonders.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Apr 5, 2018 at 19:03
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    +1, but while I love most of your answer, I really do not like the first sentence. You are writing "You can't help" and then go ahead to give advice of how he can. The correct answer is "You can", period. What you are writing in the rest of your answer is spot on. That is the behaviour I would expect from a good boss, and it most certainly will help. Just delete the first line if you so wish, and I will be 100% happy.
    – AnoE
    Apr 6, 2018 at 19:29
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    I'd avoid the use of the term "ASAP". That makes it sound less like a request and more like a command.
    – Jasper
    Apr 8, 2018 at 14:51

I don't agree with the other answers here, and coming from someone who has been in a similar situation - I'll explain.

Don't ignore the problem

Other answers have mentioned to skirt around the topic. My employer ignoring the issue would not have helped me recover. At the time, I didn't want anything to do with work. I felt no responsibility for my actions at that time, I didn't even care if I lost my job (that's what severe depression will do to someone). You need to let them know that you have observed that they are not well and that you want to help.

I was by far the top performer in my particular role before a life event affected me adversely. I was missing days of work, I wasn't getting anything done, I was avoiding meetings, I was compulsively lying, it was really bad.

After a few weeks of this insanity someone from my company HR department sat me down with my boss and we just had a discussion. They didn't say "Your performance is suffering", they didn't say "this behaviour is unacceptable".

What they did say is that they were worried about me as an individual. Some of the questions they asked:

We've been noticing that you're not your usual self, are you doing okay?

Do you feel comfortable sharing what's been going on for you lately, and is it anything we can help you with?

Do you require medical support, have you seen a GP, and/or would you benefit from some time off as medical leave? (State of mind is a valid medical concern, and there is normally allowance for this)

We want to do anything we can do to help you feel like yourself. What is it that you want right now? Do you want to stay at work?

Would temporarily reducing your work load and a shorter work week (3 or 4 days) help reduce your stress?

Note that all of those questions are supportive in nature - they're not focusing on my decrease in performance, they are focusing on how they can help me and make me feel wanted. As someone on the other side of these questions, it feels like a support system - someone believes in you. Also make sure you do this in a comfortable and private environment, because there may be tears involved (have tissues near by). Also, depending who you're talking to, they may really want to share or they may really not want to share - so don't pressure either way, just give them the opportunity. Also, have this discussion near the end of the work day - and offer the choice to go home straight from the meeting. It's never great to need to go back to work after a discussion like this, but I think it's a necessary discussion.

In the end, I didn't want a bunch of consecutive time off, but agreed that a lower work load and less stress could be better, and I ended up taking 1-2 days off per week for many more weeks until I was back on my game. It was a slow recovery, but the supportive and non-destructive environment was surely helpful. Being alone at home with my thoughts (consecutive time off) would not have been helpful for me either. You need to find out what works for your employee - as it's different for everyone and every situation. The targeted questions above will help you ascertain what will help your employee specifically.

In my opinion, this is the only responsible way to deal with this situation. Work with the employee to the extent that you are willing to do. Never highlight the performance concerns unless you're legitimately approaching a risk of termination.

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    @RichardU- if he's that high a performer, that may well be the cheapest option they have, especially for a small company. Plus it's a pretty humane way of going about it.
    – FreeMan
    Apr 3, 2018 at 19:38
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    @RichardU: If they don't, they have overextended themselves to the apparent detriment of their best staff. Not good, and not the staff's responsibility! Apr 3, 2018 at 21:28
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    @RichardU We had a similar employee here and he had some family trouble. He didn't let it affect his performance but only asked for fewer work hours and matching paycheck (i.e. 25% fewer hours 25% smaller pay). The company didn't want to set a precedent for this kind of behavior and didn't want to lose govt. support (work hours are counted when govt. is giving tax support). So they had to let him go. Even though I'd known him for a month or so, he was the best mentor I'd ever had and his absence was a big hit to the company. Now, five people are trying to get half the work he was doing, done. Apr 4, 2018 at 5:35
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    @jpmc26 You have to see it from an HR standpoint. I don't think it's polite to tell the employee he should go visit a certain specialist doctor, especially not a psychologist. Plus, HR shouldn't assume which illness it is. So they mention the GP, and the GP will forward the employee to the psychologist if necessary.
    – Alexander
    Apr 4, 2018 at 11:03
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    @RichardU In a small company, looking after your staff is not a luxury, it is an essential. Apr 4, 2018 at 18:27

This is a personal matter that they probably don't want to discuss at work. Most people take some time to recover from a breakup. Essentially, time heals all wounds.

Be patient and supportive. Don't add to their stress levels by pointing out the performance issue. In a while, they'll probably be back to normal.


This was me. I got hit with the double whammy of a bad breakup and a bizarre health issue at the same time. (No, doctor. It isn't all in my head.) I can offer one really good piece of advice.

Stay away from sensitive topics. You won't know what they all are right away. You will find some the hard way. Don't bring them up again unless they're directly productivity-related even if they don't make sense. Lots of things are going to have strange links. Beware of "it's work related because we want to blah blah appearance blah" it's just not worth it.

Then it's just a matter of how much patience you have. A broken down high performer may well be still above average.

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    I would add there after "may well be still above average", ..."and it will soon recover". I assume the employee is young, and at those ages a relationship break up can more traumatic than the usual. Apr 4, 2018 at 10:19
  • @RuiFRibeiro: Most people don't define > 6 months as soon. :(
    – Joshua
    Apr 4, 2018 at 15:08
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    Maybe yes, maybe not. We have all been there, and 6 months go by (very) fast. It is harder to find someone else of trust, and it takes up to 1 year - 1.5 years to get a new employee up to speed. As a high performing worker, I can also say in my last job I did the work of 5-6 people, and could solve in 20minutes-1h problems that took others 3 to 5 days just to investigate. (...) Apr 4, 2018 at 15:53

In addition to answers above, it may help to state explicitly that their performance is still well above average and offer to allow them time off or any other help you can provide to keep stress down from work.

Most people know when they are not doing their best work and it can add to their stress level. By restating that they are a valued employee and providing reasonable accommodation you may be able to relieve some of this and allow them to heal better on their own.

If after reasonable assistance is rendered their performance actually dips below what you would expect from a person in their position, and stays below that line, then I would approach them and say that their previous work is highly valued by the company, but that they do need to return to the standards they had. Come up with a plan of action for improvement and offer assistance following that plan, but make sure they understand that their performance is actually an issue.

It does not seem like you are anywhere near this case, as their performance is still better than others in their current role and it has only been three weeks if not as good as what they had been doing.

A human touch, appreciation for past work, and reasonable accommodation can go a long way in returning a high performer to their previous excellence.


I think you should be helping out your friend here. Personal problems such as breakups are very hard to deal with.

Since you said that you were very close to your friend since a very long time, I feel you should try helping out your friend by making sure he is occupied doing something or the other, not only professionally. I would suggest taking him out for a vacation. Go with him. Talk to him. Make sure he feels loved. Keep talking to him. Ask him what he needs from you. Make sure to spend ample of time with him, because this is the time when he needs a companion the most. Always think of your friend's feelings.

On the other hand, you have you know your limits. Do not make it too personal. Do not overstep any boundaries. Try to help as much as you can, but don't overdo it since it is best when he comes out of this phase on his own, rather than with someone's help. He has to understand that he is strong enough to deal with this loss. He has to realize that this is not the end of the world. Even though you don't have to involve too much, you have to remain on the sideline making sure he doesn't do any harm to himself. In other words, keep an eye on him. Do not let him go out of the house alone. Don't allow him to stay alone for a long periods of time.

I understand how you might be feeling seeing your friend suffer like this, however, as I said, it is best for him to come out of this phase on his own. He should not feel that you are helping him, because this will make him feel weak and he will not be able to overcome this feeling.


Try to identify why their performance is decreasing. Does they lose their power because they are not motivated? Does they lose power because everything reminds them the times with their former significant other?

Clearly state that you have noticed a change in their attitude. Not just a loss in performance, but that they look stressed, they are less communicative, supporting, joyfull. Show them you are worried about them, personally. Don't ask about what happened, how they feel but let the doors open for them to tell you what happened and what are their feelings. Show them you need them, not as a worker, but as a coworker.

You can offer a time off, shorter work hours if they feel exhausted and need a time for themselves. You can offer reorganising the work assignments so they can focus on something new. You can also offer them a bussiness trip so they can leave the capsule that reminds them the loss. You can also organise a gender specific teambuildings, one for ladies, one for men and choose the topics wisely - ones that will be interesting for the members and asexual. In your particullar case you can go play airsoft/paintbal, organise a kart session.

I have personally underwent such breakup and I was an empty shell for a while. The thing that saved me was a hard work and teaching my friends to a physical exhaustion. I had to overload my mind so I had no capacity to remind myself of the loss and to be tired enough in the evening I fell asleep in seconds. I needed the "he is valuable for someone" stimulus all the time. When I had time to think I thought about Her, I felt drowning and I didn't care.


What? Why are we having so much trouble searching for a resolution to this problem? The solution is simple. There's a problem. Just... fix it! Simply, get them back together again. See how easy that was to find a solution that directly addresses the problem, and which resolves all the subsequent issues that arose from that one singular problem?

Okay, so, on a more serious note... When you're at work, I'd suggest just letting him ruin his life, by simply letting him under-perform (as much as it makes business sense for you to just leave him alone, and let him figure this out). Seriously. But, address this at home, since he's a personal friend. If you approach him during personal time, this will come across as one friend reaching out to another. And, then when he needs you (for advice, or just as a "pick me up" by having emotional support), he will reach out to you whenever he needs to, even if that's during work hours. If he does, then be a close friend and respond at whatever time he reaches out, because that's when he decided he needed it. But don't initiate this at work.

However, if you reach out during work to your co-worker, then the whole "close friend" thing may just feel like additional pressure because he can't just be dismissive of you at work without risking jeopardizing the friendship. So that will actually be more pressure, which may be the last thing he needs.

Express your concerns to your friend at home, and let him know you're trying to just give him space at work, and then do so. But if you need to infringe on him a bit by reaching out so he's in touch with someone on the planet, do such at home. Once his home life is more tolerable, he'll likely be in better shape to approach at work.

How can I help him and also improve his performance?

You don't. Let him get through this. Mention his performance if you have to, so that he'll see the need to get out of this hole in life (that he's currently in). However, let him decide when/how to take the steps. And make sure any help you give is not focused on "performance" or any other work-related word. You're in a powerful position because, of all co-workers, you happen to be a close friend. Ensure you are using that position correctly, by approaching this as a friend, which will be much more powerful than a friend/co-worker hybrid.

One thing I've learned in life is that when there's a hole, the best thing is to try to climb out of the hole (clearly), but then the best thing is not to try to avoid falling back in the hole just by using sheer willpower. Instead, the best thing to do is to fill the hole. Getting less analogy-based and more practical, that means getting his focus on "something else" more positive than living in regret and sorrow. That way, the "something else" fills his life, and then there's not room to also spend time brooding in sorrow, so the "something else" effectively removed the hole that was created when someone left his life. Just try to make sure that "something else" isn't something terribly devastating (like chemical abuse) is to intentionally choose some positive thing to try to fill that hole in life.

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