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.
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, professor of management and organizations, and of sociology, 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.”