I had a Sunday lunch at Soul a few weeks ago where a couple of writers I respect said I should stop banging on about my marriage breakup. It had got bo-ring. I hear you babes.

I have been trying not to be a divorce bore, but this week I have something to say which isn't just about me. It's about working when you are going through any personal trauma. I once worked at the desk next to a middle-aged man, senior to me, who was in the midst of a messy marriage breakup. He would spend a lot of time on the phone with his ex-wife, his hair on end, his shirt tails hanging out, having furious whispered conversations. Sometimes not whispered. He was bitter and angry. At women in general but particularly lefties, totty and teachers.

I am ashamed when I look back now and remember how scornful I was at his failure to separate his personal life from his professional life. I was so brattish and intolerant.

Another time someone I worked with in radio who was separating from his wife had a complete breakdown and couldn't go on air. Now I am older and going through my own midlife upheaval, and I am flummoxed at how people who work in bog-standard offices manage to muddle through while keeping their jobs. Some people say working is a good distraction from emotional carnage. They are sort of right. I find folding laundry very soothing. It's not really an option if you're in an office.

On the other hand, doing work which requires neurons in your cerebral cortex to fire in concert is almost impossible when you feel as though someone should come and put an army blanket around you and give you a cup of sweet tea. Scientists would explain you're suffering from a cognitive deficit. Dwelling on our personal problem hijacks our stream of consciousness - all we can think about is our pain. Research on depressed people has found they "ruminate" on the trauma and struggle to think about anything else. The result is poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information.

HR people read all this stuff and claim to be enlightened about psychology. But it seems to me there is still scant acknowledgement in the modern workplace that people are not machines. There is a chiffon-thin membrane between the functioning members of society on one hand and the howling cotcases on the other.

Don't get me wrong: I advocate the splash your face with cold water and "act as if everything's fine" school of psychotherapy. But it seems to me there could be a bit more understanding in the corporate world that staff are vulnerable creatures whose lives will not always go smoothly.

Oh, I know HR departments have their robotic protocols. But our mainstream work culture struggles to marry our humanity with our professional lives. I'd be interested to know what Air New Zealand did to help that pilot whose marriage split up before he got picked up for drink driving four times.

So if you are reading this and suspect someone you work with has been going through a grim period in their personal life - and odds are someone in your workplace has - please don't snigger with schadenfreude and superiority at their fragility. Please don't put on a fake bedside manner and say something like, "I don't know how you cope. If I were you I'd just be curled up in the foetal position." Please don't give them some officially sanctioned mental health leave that stigmatises them as an oddball.

Just try to cut them some slack. You never know, it may be you one of these days.

dhc@deborahhillcone.com