MT Special: What Not To Say 5

The fifth instalment of author Mark Vernon's ten tips on how to deal with awkward office situations.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Office life places people cheek-by-jowl. Often, the intimacy is good, nurturing personal friendships and professional success. But it can also bring surprises – sometimes hilarious, sometimes grave. Mark Vernon looks at ten difficult moments: what’s at stake, and how should you react?

9. Troubled minds

In the excellent thriller Michael Drayton, George Clooney’s film about a multinational law firm, two of the main characters suffer from poor mental health. One has a bipolar disorder, another is undergoing a mental breakdown. The film would seem to reflect a growing awareness of stress and sadness in the workplace.

Even if that is the case, there is still a stigma attached to depression and other mental health problems. If you suspect someone is suffering in this way, ‘always think about confidentiality,’ advises Sherri Nickson of the Shaw Trust, a charity that provides training on these issues. But remember you are not an expert, so don’t try to offer counselling. Try to act as a friend, offering your best help.

10. The sacking

Becoming unemployed routinely appears on lists of the most stressful events in life. It comes higher than ‘moving home’ and is about the same as ‘end of a marriage’. Research into the causes of modern unhappiness shows that the business of being sacked actually causes more stress than the loss of income that comes with it.

The reason is that work is a key constituent in most people’s sense of themselves. It is sometimes said that all that matters is love and work; when one of the two goes, so does half of life.

So there are few situations more challenging than trying to say the right thing when a colleague has been asked to clear their desk. But if the loss of self-esteem is the departing colleague’s most difficult thing to bear, then this provides a clue as to how to proceed. Treat them with respect. Don’t pretend the bad news doesn’t exist. Be practical, if you can, and remember that they are still a human being.


For more of the same, check out Mark’s latest book, What Not To Say, which is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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