How to deal with a personal crisis at work

Familiarise yourself with existing policies and decide how much you're comfortable sharing
by Bethan Rees

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Stressful life events that lead to a personal crisis could happen to anyone in the workplace and can distract us from our jobs. A blog for First Practice Management by Lisa Wainwright says, "As the boundaries between work and personal life blur, sharing personal issues at work has become more and more common." She cites a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which highlights eight key areas where employees could need support. These are long-term illness; domestic violence; caring responsibilities; addiction; bereavement; divorce; debt; and miscarriage.

A Harvard Business Review article by Amy Gallo quotes Jane Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and co-author of Awakening compassion at work. She suggests that if you reach the point where you can't do your job anymore or fulfil your responsibilities, it could be time to reach out to ask for support.

Here are some suggestions for handling this.

Consider your privacy

Before reaching out for help, you should think about how much information you're comfortable with sharing, says Gallo. She quotes journalist Anne Kreamer in the article, who says "there are many different reasons why people choose to maintain their privacy", which could be because of an illness that carries a stigma or uncertainty about their standing in the company. Dutton advises doing a risk assessment by asking yourself questions about your workplace culture and whether there are already formal procedures in place to handle the situation.

You should also consider what’s normal for your office, writes Melody Wilding in an article for The Muse. "For example, if you have the kind of work environment where everyone’s personal life is an open book, it may feel natural to share more about what’s going on. If your office is uber professional, it may be more culturally appropriate to only disclose details through a formalised process that involves approaching your manager or the HR department," she explains.
Your company may have resources available, such as counselling, childcare or legal services, which could help support you through your crisis

Sharing struggles in your personal life with your colleagues can help alleviate some of the problems. In the Harvard Business Review article, Kreamer is quoted as saying, "We’ve been encouraged to keep the boundaries between private and professional distinct, but that’s not always helpful." Gallo refers to research by Ashley Hardin, a professor at Washington University’s Olin Business School, which finds that allowing co-workers to learn more about your personal life could make them more motivated to meet your needs.

If and when you decide to speak up, these are some possible next steps to take.

Know the HR policy and benefits offered

It's useful to know what policies your company has in place in terms of compassionate leave and other guidelines. In an article for One Legal, a US-based legal support company, Lora Templeton mentions the US Fair Labor Standards Act, where there is no specific provision for bereavement leave, and even unpaid leave must be discussed with employers. She says that "knowing your company's guidelines gives you a solid framework for your personal plan".
"If there is something your employer can do to make this period easier, ask for it"

Your company may have resources available, such as counselling, childcare or legal services, which could help support you through your crisis. Wilding’s Muse article says that "many of these lesser-known benefits can ease the financial and emotional burden when a personal crisis strikes". She adds: "Be proactive and explore if and how the company can accommodate your unique situation. Devise a list of things that would maximise your productivity during your crisis, such as working remotely while you visit family, or reducing your hours for a couple of weeks."

Talking with your manager

When you've made the decision to speak to your boss or manager, you may want to devise a plan on how to approach them. In an article for LiveCareer, a company that helps people build their CVs, Beth Braccio Hering advises scheduling “a time to talk privately for a sufficient length of time", and to not just write a text or go into their office.

Hering quotes Ari Shaffer, a therapist, author, and career coach, who gives a list of things you should be prepared to present to your boss/manager in a meeting, whether it's face-to-face or a virtual call. Shaffer says you should state the issue. "This may be a statement, such as, 'I have a health issue', or 'I'm dealing with a family issue'. The level of detail and specifics provided are up to the individual." She suggests mentioning a timeframe over which you plan on dealing with your crisis, such as "I will be addressing this over the next few days/weeks". Then, you could explain how the issue may impact on your work, and the steps you are taking to prevent further disruption and finish with your request. She says: "If there is something your employer can do to make this period easier, ask for it. Being clear about your needs, without being demanding, could help your employer know how to help you."

After establishing a plan with your manager, you could talk with your team members, "especially those who will be responsible for your workload in your absence", writes Templeton. "Share as much about your situation as you are comfortable with," she advises.

Personal crises can happen to anyone at any time, and knowing what your company policies and benefits are, and agreeing a plan with your manager to make things easier, can help support you during tough times.

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Published: 23 Oct 2020
  • Soft Skills
  • personal crisis
  • mental health
  • leadership
  • Career advice

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