What to Do When a Personal Crisis Is Hurting Your Professional Life

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At some point, we all confront a stressful life event or personal crisis that threatens to distract us from work. Perhaps it's tending to a sick family member, coping with your own illness, or dealing with a divorce. These are all incredibly tough situations to navigate personally — let alone professionally. Should you disclose what's happening to your manager and colleagues? How do you ask for what you need, such as flexible hours or a reduced workload? And how do you know if you should take a leave of absence?

What the Experts Say
"This is life, and these things happen to everybody," says Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal. But knowing you're in good company is not necessarily a comfort, especially if you're struggling to stay on top of your responsibilities at home and work. If you've reached the point where you say to yourself, "I can't get my job done," it may be time to ask for help, says Jane Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and coauthor of Awakening Compassion at Work. Here's some advice on how to navigate work when you're having a personal crisis.

Decide what you need
First, take stock of the resources you have at hand "both inside and outside the organization" to help you through this crisis, Dutton says. Are there friends or family who might be able to pitch in? Do you have team members who might be able to cover some of your responsibilities in the short term? What you need may not be huge. "It might be as simple as leaving work early on Fridays for a month," Dutton says. The key is to figure out what will help ease the pressure.

Consider how important privacy is to you
Before you ask for help, however, consider how much you're comfortable sharing. "This has to be an individual choice," Kreamer says. "There are many different reasons why people choose to maintain their privacy," especially about illnesses that carry a stigma. Uncertainty about your standing in the organization is another reason to be afraid, she adds. Dutton agrees, noting that, in some cases, "it can be dangerous to disclose your situation." She suggests assessing the risks with questions like: What kind of culture am I in? Are there formal procedures for handling this? Do I need to go to HR? Or are there people in my unit who can be helpful? Are they going to treat me humanely? Or do I need to think about how to protect myself?

It's better to share if you feel OK doing so
If you do feel that it's safe to share, it's often better to do so. "We've been encouraged to keep the boundaries between private and professional distinct, but that's not always helpful," Kreamer says. In fact, research by Ashley Hardin, a professor at Washington University's Olin Business School, shows that when you allow coworkers to discover more about your personal life, they are more motivated to meet your needs. "If the situation is interfering with your ability to complete your job, it's likely that your coworkers may already realize something is amiss, and in that case you are better off letting them in on what is going on," Hardin explains. You can also give permission to your close colleagues to share your circumstances with other coworkers if it is too difficult for you to tell them directly. "This type of indirect disclosure can open up a space for your teammates to brainstorm ways to help you," Hardin adds.

Set boundaries
This doesn't mean you need to sit down with everyone and explain your situation in agonizing detail. Set boundaries for yourself and for others. You can turn to close colleagues for the more personal conversations, but keep in mind that "most people don't want to know every detail of your parent's chemotherapy. They want to know the pertinent information and how it's going to affect them," Kreamer says. Also, it can be tough to answer lots of questions and rehash the details of a sad situation, so don't be afraid to redirect the conversation back to work if a coworker continually inquires about the details. You might say: "Right now, it helps my sanity to stay focused on work. Is it OK with you if we talk about the project instead?"

Ask for specific help
"Ideally, when you share the news, your colleagues will say: 'I'm going to do such-and-such for you. Are you cool with that?'" Kreamer says. But if your coworkers aren't forthcoming about offering help, ask for it explicitly. And be thoughtful about how you frame your request. Research by Wayne Baker, a professor at the Ross School of Business, shows that how you frame your appeal strongly influences whether someone will agree to it. He recommends making the request specific and describing why the help is meaningful to you: We "often assume that the importance of a request is obvious, but it rarely is." And as with any request you make at work, give a deadline. So you might say, "I'd love your help over the next two weeks while I'm out caring for my mother. Would you be able to complete the report we've been working on? It would free up my mind to focus on what I need to do at home."

Approach your boss
It's also a good idea to loop your boss into what's happening, assuming you feel comfortable doing so. If you have a very close relationship, tell them first and brainstorm ideas for reducing or covering your workload. But, in most cases, Kreamer says, it's best to talk to your manager when you already "have some notion of how you intend to handle the problem." Run a tentative plan by your manager, outlining the time period you expect to be absent or working less, the colleagues who might step up for you, and whether you've already discussed that possibility with them. Then ask for your boss's input.

Do what's right for you
There is no right answer when handling a crisis situation. Some people might find comfort in coming in to work every day. Kreamer did that when she was dealing with three family deaths — her parents and a grandmother — within six months. "I was overwhelmed by the tsunami of death, and work was very much a solace for me," she says.. "Work is often an antidote, a space where you can forget about what's happening and operate as a functioning adult rather than feeling helpless in the face of these events." For others, it might be better to take an official leave of absence. "When you believe that you won't be able to function at the caliber that your job requires of you, it may be better to remove yourself from that situation for a time to recharge your batteries," Kreamer says. "When you push forward and don't allow yourself to feel the grief, you don't recover as quickly." Facebook is leading the way in offering generous bereavement leave, in the wake of COO Sheryl Sandberg's losing her husband, but not all companies offer paid leave, so there are financial and career implications to consider. Still, even a short leave — just a few weeks — might be enough time.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Determine what type of support you need — at home and at work.
  • Tell your colleagues what's happening so that they feel compassion for your situation.
  • Make clear, specific requests of your coworkers and boss so that they know how they can help you.

Don't:

  • Feel you have to tell everyone directly — it's OK to ask close colleagues to explain to others what's going on.
  • Share every detail of your situation; tell coworkers only the details that are pertinent to them.
  • Assume that it will be painful to continue working during this time — sometimes going to the office can be a comfort.

Case Study #1: Reassure coworkers and maintain boundaries
When Keisha Blair, cofounder of career resource platform Aspire-Canada, was 31, her husband passed away suddenly from a rare disease — eight weeks after she'd given birth to their second child.

At the time, she was managing a team of six policy analysts in the Canadian government. The immediate response from her boss and coworkers was caring. "They were very supportive during my time of grief," she recalls. Although everyone had been expecting her back from maternity leave, they assured her that she could take off additional time should she need it, and she took them up on the offer, staying out 10 months.

But the situation was still challenging when she returned. "I could see that my story had really affected my colleagues," she explains. On her first day back, "there was an outpouring of emotions; some cried openly in the office," she recalls. And "many had questions about how the kids were coping, my support system at home, and how I was doing in the aftermath of such a sudden, unexpected death."

Her response was intentionally measured. "I didn't want to totally shut down the conversation, but in order to limit unnecessary chatter and maintain my own composure as a leader, I told colleagues that if they wanted to come talk they should feel free to do so in private. This way I could gauge how much a particular employee was affected and also manage my response," she says.

She also made it clear that there were some things she wouldn't talk about. These boundaries helped make sure these conversations didn't intensify her grief. If employees needed additional help, she referred them to the Employee Assistance Program.

Looking back, Keisha is proud of how she handled herself during this time: "I became known as a strong and resilient leader."

Case Study #2: Ask for what you need
The day that Jisella Dolan received a job offer from Home Instead, an in-home care organization for the elderly, she learned that her father had six to 18 months to live. Looking at the company's vacation policies, and thinking of how often she would have to travel to her parents' town, eight hours away, she didn't know how she could make it work.

Because she didn't know her prospective boss very well, Jisella was hesitant to share her situation with him. "He was basically a stranger to me. I had no sense of how he would respond to my story," she explains.

She assumed that Home Instead wouldn't allow extra time and "didn't want to ask for special favors, especially as a new employee." But it was her "dream job," so she decided to explain the situation. "I had to be honest about how it might impact my ability" to do the job, she says. She was clear that she would need to leave work early on Fridays to travel to see her parents and probably take calls from her mother during her workday.

Jisella's soon-to-be boss surprised her. "They acknowledged and honored the position I was in and shared that they would work with me" on a solution. She was still expected to work hard. But, even when an emergency with her dad forced her to leave an important meeting, no one questioned it.

The experience "bred instant loyalty to the organization," she adds. Their "willingness to accommodate my needs made me more passionate about doing good work for them."

Jisella's father passed away six months after she accepted her job. Ten years later, she is still at Home Instead and now serves as its chief advocacy officer.

Case Study #3: Make your plans clear
Several years ago, when Jacqueline Ardrey was working as a senior merchandising and supply chain executive for Harry & David, she experienced a series of tragedies. First, her daughters' stepsisters were killed in an accident. And then her mother died suddenly, leaving behind her ill father.

Her boss, colleagues, and team couldn't have been more supportive. Even Harry & David's CEO called her after he heard about what happened and asked what she needed. She asked if she could temporarily have Fridays or Mondays off, and he agreed without question.

But she made sure to stay in close touch with her team, in person when she was at the office and through email when she wasn't. "I let them know what was happening, what my plans were, and what they could or could not expect from me during my time out. It was such a critical time for the business, so I told them that I needed to be there for my kids and that I may not be as 'present' physically or in meetings, and I asked for their understanding." When she wasn't comfortable talking with someone directly, she wrote them an email.

Jacqueline will never forget the support she experienced while working at Harry & David.

She is now the president of Cold Brew Kitchen, a supplier of coffee products. "I offer my team incredibly flexible schedules so that they can navigate their lives and goals. This event definitely had an impact on that decision," she says.



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