I have a friend in her mid-40s. She is the most senior member of a team in a very large organisation, and has a husband and two children in their early teens.

In the 10-plus years I’ve known her she has always worked very hard, and is regularly up at 5am to get the first train to work.

Since a recent promotion, she has been unusually absent from events and group chats. Last night I went out with friends, including her husband, who told us that for the past few weeks she’s been working until 4am most days, including weekends.

I have always been concerned about the number of hours she works, given she also juggles a busy family life. She doesn’t like driving long distances in case she falls asleep at the wheel, and when she goes on holiday she often falls ill. I have tried to reason with her, and explain that, however senior she is, she should not be expected to work such dangerously long hours. According to her husband she is exhausted and often bursts into tears. But she will not slow down.

No one should be expected to work this hard. I don’t know whether the company demands it, she feels obliged because she’s chasing a promotion, or she’s backed herself into a corner all these years by working so late. We’ve told her to tell her boss it’s not sustainable. She has a huge team so there must be a way to delegate.

I am concerned she will have a physical or mental health crisis. I’m half tempted to contact her firm and whistleblow, but that could really make things bad for her. I don’t know how to help her without her approaching the company herself. She needs an intervention.

Please do not contact her company; that would be a very bad idea. It’s unlikely the company demands your friend works such hours anyway. It’s probably something she’s decided to do for whatever reason, if indeed you are sure she is at work all this time. (Sorry, but it’s an obvious thought that came into my mind.)

The clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr Stephen Blumenthal’s first thoughts were: “You really can’t know or assume what’s going on for anyone else. It’s painful for those around such a person, when it’s obvious they need help, but the person themselves needs to recognise this and want do something about it.”

Your friend probably needs a crisis to make herself see her work-life balance is so skewed. But anyone who throws themselves into something so excessively is avoiding something. I didn’t think work was the problem per se but rather that your friend is using it to escape something else. It could be her home life, it could be another thing entirely and work may have become so all defining that without it she is lost.

Blumenthal also wondered how much leverage her husband has. “Why does he tolerate her absence so much of the time? It must be destroying family life, but ultimately it’s up to the person [in this case your friend] to want to do something about it.” (The same would be true if it were a man working such long hours: none of it is conducive to family life.)

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I wonder what exactly you’ve said to your friend? It’s one thing to say “you’re working really long hours” and another to say “we’re really worried about you”. One feels accusatory, the other more caring.

Blumenthal suggested: “Try saying something like, ‘Tell me about your situation. I want to understand it better.’ The reality is you don’t know what’s going on, so it’s a good idea to try to understand things from her POV. Telling a person what they’re not doing right has very little impact and may be seen as criticism. But if you try to listen and empathise, that may give your friend a safe place of containment in which to talk.”

On some level, however counterintuitive it seems, this is working for your friend and she’ll continue to do it until it becomes unsustainable. When that inevitably happens, the best thing you can do is be there to support her without judgment.

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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The latest series of Annalisa’s podcast is available here.

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