how do I hold it together at work during a personal crisis?

A reader writes:

I’m looking for some advice on how you effectively manage a team while you’re drowning in personal issues.

In the past year, I’ve had what can only be described as a Series of Unfortunate Events that honestly seem almost comical in their frequency and severity: I had emergency abdominal surgery, had to move in with and become the primary caregiver for a cognitively impaired elderly relative, and now I am getting a divorce (not by choice), all within the space of a few months. And those are only the most major things.

Up until now, I have held it together pretty well, but I work a very demanding job directly supervising a fairly large team. I have tried to minimize the impact of my personal issues on my workplace, but unfortunately I am hundreds of miles away from any peers or my boss. I actually had to come in and conduct interviews on the day of my surgery because there was no one else to do it.

I feel incredibly guilty that I am not performing at my usual level, and feel like a constant problem for my own supervisor. Up until all of this happened, I was among the top performers in my peer group with a team that was lauded throughout the company. Now I feel like I’m struggling to just remain competent in my role, and part of that is due to the emotional toll of direct management. I find myself not wanting to have difficult conversations with staff members because I have no emotional energy left to do it. I’m conflict-avoidant. I struggle with focusing and keeping track of multiple requests and priorities, which I used to find very easy, due to being preoccupied with everything going on in my personal life. I am concerned that my staff–with whom I only share minimal details–is losing confidence in me and my ability to manage effectively, which is a hard thing to recoup.

I may now need time off to handle my impending divorce and I don’t know how to tell my boss that, yes, I have another thing going on. I also don’t really want to tell my staff all of my personal business, but feel like I need to give them some reason for why I’m not as on top of things as I used to be, or why I need to be out of the office.

How do you remain an effective manager when you’re mentally and emotionally tapped out, and/or mitigate the impact of it on your team?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 152 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Machiamellie

    This is what Employee Assistance Programs are meant for – helping people through personal crises, two of which being caring for elderly relatives and divorce. If OP’s company has an EAP, I really recommend she utilize it. I’ve done so in the past and it’s been extremely helpful.

    Reply
    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

      I’m always surprised when people mention EAPs in response to letters here. In my experience — which is admittedly in the nonprofit sector, and mostly at very small organizations — EAPs are nothing more than a clearinghouse to direct employees to resources (resources that they already have access to elsewhere). Am I missing something?

      I’ve only used an EAP once. All it did was send me a list of therapists covered by my insurance, which was something I could have looked up in 90 seconds.

      Reply
      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Whoops, didn’t finish my thought. I meant to ask: What services/resources/support/etc. do EAPs offer that I’m just not thinking of?

        Reply
        1. Dizzy Steinway

          Ours has a 24/7 counselling line and can potentially provide some free face to face therapy sessions.

          Reply
        2. Oryx

          At multiple jobs, I’ve had EAPs offer 24/7 phone counseling for an unlimited number of calls and then a set number of in person therapy appointments per calendar year.

          Reply
        3. Willow

          Yes, the counseling by phone. Because thinking about going in person may add the stress of “great, another meeting I have to go to”.

          Reply
          1. Dizzy Steinway

            We run a helpline and deal with some very distressing calls – the EAP line is one of the ways we can debrief.

            Reply
        4. StartupLifeLisa

          When I was at a Fortune 500, our EAP would do essentially ANYTHING we needed, from hooking us up with a free legal consultation about a private matter (couldn’t be suing the company obviously, but for divorce, finances, etc) to financial advisor referrals to a few fully covered therapy sessions. At one point I heard a story about the EAP getting someone last-minute chairs for her wedding after the chairs she had rented didn’t show up and she was about to have her entire family standing through her whole wedding!

          Reply
      2. JessaB

        A while ago when I was having problems, the EAP arranged both a therapist at company cost and the allowance to leave early to GET to said therapist twice a week for around six months. They coordinated a visit to a Psych with my medical insurance in order to get medicines prescribed and adjusted til they worked.

        At one point I had a money problem and despite the fact that it wasn’t actually a company policy they arranged for an advance on payroll.

        Some EAPs do some really good work, some are no different than calling 211 to get a list of places that might be able to help.

        Reply
        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

          Thank you, that’s helpful! (And yes, the 211 comparison — that’s exactly what I’ve experienced.)

          Reply
          1. fposte

            Our EAP equivalent is actually staffed with its own therapists, which you can see at no charge. I’ve been a few times and they were really good.

            Reply
        2. Julie B.

          Even if you do not have an EAP, I second finding a good therapist. I’ve been through a period similar to the OP’s and having a therapist was a huge help.

          Reply
          1. Carolyn

            I second the second … the most loving thing I did for myself during my divorce was start therapy. I needed an hour in the week when it was all about me with someone who had no skin in the game. I was surrounded by loving family and friends who would have done anything in their power to make me feel even the slightest bit better, but that was not in their power … and their loving attempts to help often just made me feel even worse and more alone. (I adopted the mantra “I am grateful that my friends and family have no idea what I am dealing with.”) My therapist helped me see my situation clearly, helped me work through my thoughts, feelings and fears, and kept reminding me that I was coping freakishly well despite feeling like I was coming undone.

            I didn’t need meds. Therapy only lasted 2-3 months. But I came out the other side as my happiest, healthiest self. That hour each week was the equivalent of a 2 week vacation in Tahiti – it was my refuge from my life that was making less sense every day (spouse’s mental illness, divorce, 2 surgeries for an injury, toxic job …) I felt like I was kicked off a cliff and the best thing I did for myself was grab at every handhold on the way down to stop the fall and start climbing back up. OP, you have A LOT going on right now … therapy can help you sort it all out and keep moving forward. Good luck!

            Reply
            1. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)

              I needed an hour in the week when it was all about me with someone who had no skin in the game.

              This is absolutely the best thing about therapy for me. The one time of my week where nobody needs anything from me, nobody is interrupting me (!) or asking me to do anything. I so wish that everybody had access to a good therapist, because the value they can provide is amazing.

              Reply
          2. Rebecca in Dallas

            I’m one of those people who thinks everyone should have a therapist, the same way everyone should have a regular doctor and dentist. Your mental health should be maintained the same way as your physical health! (I wish insurance companies thought the same way.)

            Reply
            1. ThatGirl

              Actually part of the Affordable Care Act was providing parity for mental health practitioner office visits – though it’s not considered preventive care, they have to charge the same as for a GP visit, for instance.

              Now who knows what will happen in the future, but for now… at least there’s that.

              Reply
              1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

                Well, the ACA required insurers to offer parity in coverage, not in cost. My insurance, for example, covers 80% of a visit to a doctor or mental health practitioner. The practitioners can charge whatever they like, which will of course determine what I pay.

                Reply
                1. ThatGirl

                  Fair enough, I’ve mostly seen it in plans with copays – where it’s $15 or $30 or whatever per visit. Parity is still important, though. And in my data-point of experience the price for an hour of counseling is often less than a GP office visit. YMMV.

              2. Rebecca in Dallas

                Oh, interesting! I luckily have good medical insurance coverage under my employer, so haven’t looked into all of the ins and outs of the ACA. But yes, I wouldn’t bank on that being available going forwards unfortunately…

                My experience is also that most therapists don’t go through insurance. I pay out of pocket for mine. I can send my statement of services to my insurance but I think it only goes against my yearly deductible.

                Reply
      3. BadPlanning

        One handy benefit of our EAP program covers 6 sessions with a counselor (I’m using this as a broad, not technical term).

        After a family member passed away, I did grief counseling and the sessions were covered by my company. Six sessions may not be a huge number for a more serious problem, but it was a good number for me to work through the failing “suck it up” plan of attack I had been doing.

        I know some people have experienced negative consequences at work by using their program, but I did not (or not knowingly, at least).

        Reply
      4. Manders

        Same here! I’ve never actually worked at a place with an EAP, and my husband’s EAP seems to be just a hookup for a couple of free therapy sessions. I’ve gotten advice to call my EAP when I’ve asked questions here before, but… how do I find a company with one? What are they actually supposed to be able to do for me?

        Reply
        1. ThatGirl

          What EAPs cover varies somewhat by company, and many companies will mention it as part of their benefits… I know at my last job, it covered any number of personal/financial/emotional issues, including phone and in-person counseling. They are generally a good place to start if you feel like you might need a counselor but don’t know where to start. I believe our HR resources included a general guideline on what our EAP covered.

          Reply
      5. Father Ribs

        I think the advantage of an EAP, at least in my experience with them, was that they are a central clearinghouse and were willing to do the footwork that may not have been that much when you’re outside reviewing it, but when you’re barely functional, only having to call a number and someone with a clear(er) head was willing to help you get started on a path is a good deal.

        OP: I only had one of those things and I was barely functional for over three months. I don’t think any word are going to give you the support you need but people will surprise you sometimes by how supportive they are, and also by how much they can endure. One foot in front of the other, every day, and some day you’ll be better than you feel now.

        Reply
      6. Security SemiPro

        I’ve had help integrated with my work. The 24 hour nurse hotline at a previous job saved me from major badness – I called with a “do I need to get someone to look at this?” question and they instructed me to drive immediately to the nearby hospital, while I was enroute they got me an appointment with the required specialist, scheduled surgery for that afternoon, updated my primary care doc, and filed for time off of work for me for the minorish surgery. It made what would have been a moderate medical emergency and stressful incident (when I ignored it for a few more days) into a very smooth almost non issue. Not having to make all of the phone calls and organize it all myself was really, really great. (And it was very professional, they informed my boss that I would be out for X amount of time, but gave no other information.)

        My current job also has homebuying assistance, legal assistance, I think car buying assistance, financial management , etc.

        Reply
      7. Temperance

        My EAP pays for 4 counseling appointments/year. I personally am not pleased with them – I was sent to a Christian counselor with no prior warning that she was religious and a “certified Christian counselor” – but it’s a great resource generally.

        Reply
        1. phil

          I was in the hospital for several months to kill an infection that was trying to kill me. Needless to say I had some bad nights. The hospital-an Air Force hospital, I’m a VA patient-had a chaplain on call 24/7 and I called on him. He was a Christian, I’m Jewish. He was very helpful and, let’s face it, if we treated each other with a little Christian kindness we’d all be better off. There are universal truths, I think, that are religion independent.

          Reply
          1. SadieMae

            I think what Temperance was referring to is a particular kind of counselor who gives advice specifically from a Christian perspective, not just a counselor who personally happens to be a Christian. I live in the Bible Belt, and counselors here who bill themselves as “Christian counselors” ground their practices in prayer, having a personal relationship with Jesus, being born-again, etc. Helpful for many fellow Christians, but not a good fit for others.

            I have also had friends sent to these “Christian counselors” who came away feeling criticized if their religious beliefs didn’t align with those of the counselor – people who were told that until they “humbled themselves” and “gave their problems up to God,” they would never feel better. That’s not just unhelpful, it could send a person who was already feeling depressed or anxious into a tailspin.

            So these could be helpful counselors for some, but IMHO, a workplace shouldn’t send employees to them unless the employee specifically wants such an approach.

            Just wanted to clarify what I think Temperance meant…I could be wrong. But this is a thing in some places.

            Reply
            1. TootsNYC

              yeah, you do need to be in sync! The funny thing w/ me was, I sought out a counselor from a religious counseling service, and I had to be the one to bring up issues or perspectives from our faith.

              And my counselor was a former pastor!

              Reply
            2. Temperance

              Nope, that’s exactly it. I’m an atheist/ex-evangelical, and advice from a Christian perspective is really useless for me, and actually, truthfully, will set me back and give me even more anxiety. No thanks!

              Reply
            3. Julia

              This. When your life seems to be falling apart, being told that “it’s all God’s plan” or “God never gives us more than we can handle” doesn’t help when you’re agnostic/atheist.

              Reply
          2. Temperance

            Heh, I’m an ex-evangelical, so “Christian kindness” has a different meaning in my world.

            I am assuming that you aren’t familiar with “certified Christian counselors”. She has a regular degree, but her therapy practice is faith-based, which is not my jam.

            Reply
      8. Matilda Jefferies

        I’ve used EAP for therapy, and also for legal advice. I was in a situation where a family member had been arrested and their duty counsel was pressuring me to provide bail, so I needed an objective and knowledgeable source to tell me exactly what was involved besides the money. (Spoiler, it’s not like it is on TV!) Free and quick legal advice was essential for me to figure out what to do in that situation.

        Reply
        1. zora

          oh, that’s a really good example! I will try to keep in mind the other ways EAPs can be really helpful.

          Reply
      9. TootsNYC

        Sometimes a job coach might seem the most helpful, but a lot of therapists can provide that to some degree, even if it’s only providing you w/ a structured place and time to think out loud and strategize. Safely, without judgment, personal relationships, etc., coloring your thinking.

        The one time I used an EAP, the person did some explaining of what types of resources I might consider–so, advice on resources, more than actual advice on the situation itself. That alone was helpful!

        And they called to follow up to see if I was still OK, had started doing anything, etc.

        Reply
      10. Pommette

        My experiences have been similar to yours: referrals to public resources or to therapists covered by our insurance. While some employers are large and generous enough to offer substantial EAPs, I suspect that only a minority of workers have access to meaningful EAPs.

        Reply
      11. Candy

        I work for a Canadian university and our Employee and Family Assistance program covers the cost of short-term counselling (to a maximum of twelve visits annually per family) with registered psychologists who help with stress, anxiety, depression, marriage counselling, alcohol and drug dependency, grief and bereavement, etc. If you need longer term or more specialized counselling they then refer you to other resources. In Canada, our healthcare covers seeing a psychiatrist if you’re referred by a doctor (ie. you go to your family doctor, say ‘I’m depressed’ then they refer you to a psychiatrist, which is then covered by healthcare) so I’ve never made use of my job’s EFAP and don’t really see that it’s much different than what I can get through my family doctor (maybe there’s less of a wait) but it’s nice to have it there as an option, I guess.

        Reply
    2. Geoffrey B

      EAPs can be great, but it’s important to look at what the plan covers and consider whether it’s a good fit to one’s personal circumstances.

      My employer offers an EAP and I used it for free counselling when I was going through a very rough stage in my life, but I found it counterproductive and ended up paying for my own counsellor instead. The biggest issue was that the plan only covered three free sessions by default (ended up with only two because I was ill and had to cancel one with < 24 hours notice) and after that I had to wait and wait for my employer to approve more. As a result, the EAP counselling became a net increaser of stress; I don't deal well with uncertainty and that was a time when I really needed things I could depend on, because my usual supports had broken down.

      I would still recommend my employer's EAP for things that can be addressed within a couple of sessions, but I wouldn't go to it for a long-term problem where I need somebody who I can think of as *my* counsellor.

      Reply
    3. BananaPants

      Meh, not all of them are that great. Our EAP intake people ask a ton of intrusive intake questions to determine that you’re not suicidal or homicidal and then all they do is give you a list of 3-4 therapists who are in-network for our insurance and tell you to look up content farmed articles about reducing stress and work-life balance. If you want to see a psychiatrist (as I did when I sought treatment for depression), they make you go through the whole intake interview by phone, only to tell you that they only refer for therapists and counselors.

      It was MORE disheartening to finally want to get help, psych myself up to admit this fact to a total stranger, sneak out to my car to call in privacy, and go through the whole sordid intake process – only to have the perky EAP lady tell me that I’d have to figure out a psychiatrist on my own.

      Reply
  2. paul

    I’m floored at not being able to get the day of surgery off; I really hope that was pre-op, not while you were hopped up on stuff!

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think it’s pretty likely that that was her own call — as a director, it’s easy to feel like “I just need to do this myself because there’s no one to hand it off to.”

      Reply
      1. OP

        This is exactly right. It was a confluence of events–the position is incredibly hard to fill so every candidate is like gold; the surgery was urgent so there was essentially no notice; anyone at my level or above was not available, not even HR.

        I did make that call (and yes, it was before drugs!) and Allison’s assessment is spot on. I tried everything I could to call in help but when that failed, I decided to do it myself rather than lose the candidate.

        Reply
        1. Naruto

          I wonder what would happen if you push back harder. Like, you tried to see if anyone else was available, and they weren’t — but you were having surgery, so neither were you! If you had told them, “I’m having surgery and not available. Which one of you can make yourself available for this?” what would have happened?

          I don’t know that you’re not pushing back hard enough, but it’s something I see at my own office and similar ones. No one is going to pick up slack for you (particularly at or above your level) unless you tell them that they have to or else some of the things you’re expected to do simply won’t get done.

          Reply
        2. MW

          When you say “anyone at my level or above was not available”, were they unavailable for pretty serious reasons? i.e. more serious than surgery? I think what you did was a really surpassing act of duty, something most people would not do, and you should be lauded for it. But I also really struggle with the idea that there was no-one else with something less serious than surgery that could’ve been interrupted to make it happen.

          Reply
      2. anonymous for this one, of course.

        I am not director level and I had 3 surgeries in the last month and a half, all unplanned. Things have been so unstable at my office, and my team is so under resourced, and my deliverables are so time sensitive that I worked with a morphine drip in my hospital bed. I had an organ removed at 5pm on a Friday and worked until they wheeled me in and then was back at it again around 8pm when the anesthesia wore off. And I was working from home full time by Monday. (I did take a few WFH days instead of commuting into the office, which I had to do – I couldn’t walk for a week. But I worked 10-12 hour days.)

        I regret it. But while I was out, my boss was let go and no one knew who would be next. I just felt like my entire job was on the hook. My entire family gets health insurance through my job, my income is 75-80% of our entire family income. I just got scared about taking time off and I worked through it. I completely regret it. But you get backed into a corner sometimes and you feel like you have no choice.

        I’m in a pretty unhealthy situation right now and I’m realizing it a little more each day and am taking steps to remove myself from it. But yeah, I understand that self-imposed need to work during a health crisis because you feel like you have no other option…

        Reply
  3. Venus Supreme

    Combining your work life with your personal life, you’re running a heckin’ marathon through the Amazon. Take a pit stop if you need it, and see where others can help you with your logistical tasks. I think seeing what tasks can be broken off to your employees and what other tasks can move to the back burner will help tremendously. Also, your brain is important and take a sick day, if needed, for your emotional health. I’m sending you positive vibes and hugs.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I approve the sentiment, and I even more heartily approve what looks to me like an evocation of We Rate Dogs.

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      Venus Supreme made a point above about “taking a pit stop.”

      I just want to point out: FMLA leave is a strong possibility here.

      Talk to your doctor–maybe taking a week off would give you time to align your life, etc., so that you could be in better shape going forward.

      I know someone whose marriage imploded, and she was so stressed, and she went to HR, who said, “FMLA leave, pronto–have your doctor send me a form.” She took a week, went to some sort of retreat for the weekend leading into it, and then spent the week lining up all the help she’d need for logistics, and also for mental health. It made a huge difference fo rher.

      Reply
      1. Tink

        Yes! FMLA! Surprised that this hadn’t been mentioned yet. When employees have come to me to share a current life implosion, one of the first questions I ask is if they understand their available benefits — EAP, FMLA, Company Leave, modified work, etc. — and if they know how to access those benefits. Sometimes people in these situations try too long to power through at work and that can do damage to work performance that managent can’t ignore. Personally, I took a 6 month FMLA when my husband had a very-nearly life ending accident requiring months of hospitalization, surgeries and rehabilitation. I was a mess. Good luck to you, OP

        Reply
          1. JanetM

            FML is 12 weeks per 12-month period, but you can take intermittent FML. For example, when my husband had knee replacement surgery, I took two weeks, then a half day three times a week for six weeks while he was going to PT.

            It’s also possible that Tink’s company is more generous than federal law requires, and allowed a longer leave of absence, or allowed using accrued sick and vacation time before going on FML rather than concurrent with it, or has something like a sick leave bank employees can draw on after exhausting their own leave.

            Reply
            1. Tink

              JaneM, correct: generous company with regard to employee benefits. No one in my company has to tap out vacation time or POT before exercising FMLA for a qualifying event. It’s pretty awesome and I’m eternally grateful to have had the benefit when I needed it.

              Reply
          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            It’s only 12 weeks, but some employers let you take it consecutively with company-provided medical leave, especially if it’s unpaid leave. (But 6 months is longer than I’ve ever seen!)

            Reply
            1. Tink

              My leave was all paid at a rate of 60% of my salary as short-term disability, which everyone at the company has as a benefit. Short-term disability isn’t payroll taxed, so it’s essentially a full ‘net’ paycheck. As I said, grateful beyond grateful.

              Reply
              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

                Ah, that’s an important distinction (FMLA v. short-term disability). Thanks for clarifying :) (and kudos to your employer )

                Reply
  4. LawCat

    Wow, OP, you have been dealing with (and continue to deal with) A LOT! Alison’s advice is excellent, as ever.

    Do you have vacation time banked and/or does your workplace allow unpaid leaves of absence? If you can afford to do so and your boss is amenable, taking a few months off to give yourself room to breathe and focus on your personal affairs might be a great option.

    Reply
    1. Natalie

      Or even just a week or two, to do some self care or get a couple of immediate projects out of the way, could help.

      Reply
  5. Michelle

    I don’t have anything to add to the excellent advice already given, just wanted to send you positive vibes and good thoughts your way. It’ll be tough, but you will make it through.

    Reply
    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

      Seconding this comment. Lots of support and good wishes to you, OP.

      (I accidentally typed ‘goose wishes’ at first. You can have those as well if you think they would help.)

      Reply
  6. irritable vowel

    I read something once that I often think about when I worry about the problems in my life – if everyone around you put their problems in a basket, chances are you’d choose to take your own problems back. It is likely and in fact, inevitable, that other people around you are also suffering and struggling with major issues. Or, if not currently, have had major issues in their past. For me personally, I also tend to err more on the side of keeping problems in my personal life very private, but the downside to that is that if everyone does that, we all struggle to soldier on, needlessly. It’s okay to share major problems with people like your supervisor, or, in a more limited way, with people you supervise, in order to let them know that you need some extra help (in whatever form that needs to take). We’re all human beings. We all struggle. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re carrying this burden that you need to keep hidden – that’s kind of animal nature, to hide your weaknesses from potential predators. But the people that you work with are on your side, or they should be. Good luck to you. I have been there, I suspect most if not all of us have been at one time or another.

    Reply
  7. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    My sister is going through something similar, and she eventually — after two months of trying to struggle through it — decided that needed to take some time off. Because she has built years of credibility as a great employee, her employer not only approved her leave request without hesitation but also suggested that she take twice as much time as she was planning to, with full pay.

    Reply
    1. NW Mossy

      I work with a senior leader who did this – she was struggling with delayed-onset grief after a loss and finally approached her boss about it. He willingly granted the time, and she came back stronger and with unshakable faith in his excellence as a manager and a human being. She once told the story at a divisional event and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      FMLA can often cover an absence like this. You might need a doctor to lay out the plan for you, but I’ve seen it work.

      Reply
  8. anonymous for this one, of course.

    this is so timely for me, i’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown and am barely holding it together at work. i’m hoping there will be a lot of good comments here!

    i’ve had the worst year of my life and if i listed out all of the things that have contributed to my current state, it would sound made up. (start with a foundation of lifelong clinical depression, anxiety, and ADD, then add severe health issues and multiple surgeries, serious parental health issues with 3 out of 4 of our parents and family caregiving, turmoil at work, and some very stressful personal issues on top of all of this that i won’t even get into… the list goes on.) i’m looking into medical leave because i am so far down in this spiral i can’t even see out of it. i’m nervous about what it will do to my status at work, how it will affect my career and recommendations and references and job prospects, i’m worried about what people will think, i’m worried it won’t help. (or that they won’t allow it!) i’m also worried that if i don’t do something soon, the next time something happens to drag me a little further down, i’m going to flip out and quit or run away or start screaming and not stop. i’ve dealt with cycles of depression my entire life but i’m in the worst one of my life. i don’t know how i even get dressed in the morning. i definitely can’t keep up with my life right now and it’s only getting worse.

    Reply
    1. Anna

      Hoping for the best for you and OP. Sometimes it is too much for one person to handle on their own and that’s all right. I hope you both have the support network you need to lean on.

      Reply
    2. Isben Takes Tea

      I’m so sorry you’re going through this, anonymous. The worst part about depression/anxiety is the worse a bout is, the harder it is to get enough energy and focus together to get help. *I’ve been there,* and it sucks so bad.

      The biggest encouragement I can give you is whatever happens now is not going to turn your future into a nuclear wasteland of unemployment. As someone who has dealt with depression/anxiety, the physical and real act of doing something proactive to care for myself–whether that’s requesting medical leave, talking to a therapist, or just taking a day off–has always helped. People respect coworkers who know their own limits and take care of themselves, and usually appreciate it more than coworkers who just keep going until everything falls apart.

      Please take care of yourself, anonymous, and believe that you are capable of asking for the help you need, even if it’s scary and you can’t control other people’s reactions. You are worth it.

      Reply
      1. Also Anon

        Yes, take care of yourself. Your health matters, Anonymous (and OP). Your health matters and it’s better to take time/work a little less hard now rather than push yourself until you fall apart. It’s okay to be not as great right now in order to be healthy and better later.

        Reply
    3. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

      I’m sorry things are so difficult for you right now. All of what you describe is so familiar to me. I’m a bit worried about offering specific advice because what worked/works for me may not work for others (or may come across as trivial/dismissive). Do you have a trusted friend you can talk to? Someone who will at least listen while you let it all out? It’s not fair to have to carry this burden all on your own. And I know all about being amazed at just getting dressed in the morning, so if it helps, this internet person is proud of you for what you are doing.

      Reply
    4. anonymous for this one, of course.

      Thank you all. I really appreciate the comments and the support. I’m going to look into FMLA. I guess my hesitation is because I thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously because to anyone NOT in my situation, it “appears” as though the crisis is over and everything is fine now.

      The things my colleagues and management know about seem to be “over” – a major medical crisis and I’ve recovered. A car accident and insurance issues are finally resolved. Family health crisis is over and things are starting to return to normal despite a long recovery time for my parent.

      No one knows about the rest of it – the depression, the issues with 2 other parents having serious health issues, the grandparent I help take care of, the stress in my marriage (an excellent marriage in no danger of ending, but the stress of all of these issues is putting a lot of tension into the relationship and we have to work VERY hard to keep things going well), etc. I felt like if I requested a leave, I’d have to justify everything and fight for it.

      I’m really going to look into it, and talk to my therapist about it. Thank you again.

      Reply
      1. ValaMalDoran

        No, no, no. “Over” isn’t “done.” I’m just now emerging from an absolutely terrible time in my personal life. The horrific events are about five or six months in the past now, but it has taken me all this time to get to a reasonably ok place.

        The way I see it, the tough time has depleted your reserves of emotional strength and….okayness? Just because the crisis is technically done, doesn’t mean your reserves are built back up yet. Take excellent care of yourself, and take the time to heal. It is not weak or wrong. It is healthy. I certainly needed it.

        Here, have some internet hugs from a stranger, if you’ like them. There is no official timeline for recovery from life crises, and the emotional trauma left behind. Do what you need to recover, in your own time.

        Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I think part of the difficulty of being caught in an anxiety-depression spiral is that it skews our perception of risk. Most humane and decent people will accept that the health crises are not “over” for you and that you need this time for self-care. This isn’t an indulgence—it’s a necessity.

        And I don’t know if this is helpful to you, but it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate in any way if you choose to take FMLA leave. That means that they cannot ding you, deprive you of advancement opportunities, stifle your career development, or offer a negative recommendation based on your decision to take leave or your inability to meet certain targets because you were on leave. You know your coworkers best, but hopefully they’re not assholes (because the only people who would judge you for taking leave or demand an explanation for why you need FMLA leave are exactly that—assholes).

        I encourage you to look up your workplace’s medical leave policy and to go ahead and take the FMLA leave if your employer is a covered entity. Depending on where you live, you may also have leave protections under state law. You don’t have to justify your absence, although your employer might ask for medical certification (i.e., a note from your treating physician or your family member’s treating physician, depending on if you’re taking personal medical leave or caregiver leave).

        Things sound really difficult and challenging for you, and it’s not right or fair for you to continue to suffer. I’m wishing you luck and support.

        Reply
      3. Gadfly

        One of the long running issues that have complicated my life is how little recognition and support we give caretakers. It is a huge commitment, constantly being on call and having that worry/responsibility hovering over you while you wait for it. Ironically, sometimes the most independent are the hardest–you are working around them more whereas someone who is in worse condition you can get more help for and you have more ability to structure when things happen.

        Reply
      4. Elfie

        Oh anonymous, please do look after yourself. I know all about the type of situation you describe (I too suffer from life-long anxiety and depression), and I care for a disabled husband, who in the past has suffered from what therapists call a ‘psychotic break’. He basically took a break from reality for a while. It was terrifying when it was happening, but I was working, caring for him, and just about holding it together. When he got a bit better, and I had a bit of time to breathe and realise what I’d just done, that’s when it hit me. I had to take a couple of weeks off because although my situation had recovered, my symptoms were worse. I completely understand how people think that when you’re in the thick of it, and you manage, that it should be easier from there on it, but the reality isn’t always like that. Do whatever you need to do to get back on some kind of firmer footing – my best internet thoughts are sent out to you.

        Reply
    5. Not So NewReader

      Let’s break this into parts, because this is pretty big:

      “i’m nervous about what it will do to my status at work”
      Staying and working in the condition you are in will do more damage than leaving. Seriously. We have to know when to take a step back, then actually do it.

      “how it will affect my career”
      It may or may not effect your career. Just like if you stayed may or may not effect your career. Careers do not crash because of one situation or one choice. I am sure most people here have a story of a crappy doctor/lawyer/teacher/other professional who just did one dumb thing after another and still managed to keep their jobs. You have an honest crisis. Most people in your position would need a life preserver or life boat. You are a human being having a human experience.

      “and recommendations and references and job prospects”
      Let’s do these three as a group, because you don’t want to spend all night reading here. Good people and good employers will understand. Jerks, not so much. In a way it’s your “people filter” anyone who does not understand the magnitude of what you are facing is not your peeps.

      “i’m worried about what people will think”
      Screw ’em. Tell anyone with an opinion that they can live your life for you and you will come back when they have everything fixed. Meanwhile, you will just go live their life.

      ” i’m worried it won’t help”
      That is Negative Nancy talking inside your head. Tell her to stuff it. The actual truth is that any effort we put into helping ourselves gives us some level of benefit. Sometimes people think it’s an all or nothing thing and that is absolutely NOT true. As an example, let’s use dieting. Suppose a person decides to eat healthier. But when they actually try to do it, they find that they can only eat two healthy meals a day. The third meal is not the best choices. This person will STILL get some benefit from the parts they are doing well with. They might start to feel a bit better, sleep a little better and have more energy during the day. And yet, they are not eating perfectly all the time. If we make any attempt to help ourselves, we WILL get some benefit.

      “i’m also worried that if i don’t do something soon, the next time something happens to drag me a little further down, i’m going to flip out and quit or run away or start screaming and not stop.”
      Of everything you have said here this is the number one concern that I see written here.
      Have the shakes started yet? How about panic attacks? BTDT. It sounds to me like you are pretty low on vitamins and minerals. So this week, do something to help you. You don’t have to make other people understand the size of the problem. You are THE key person that needs to know that something big is going on with you. That is enough right there to take action.

      Pick one thing that you will do this week. Come back on the weekend and let us know what you did and how it’s going so far. It does not have to be a big thing, matter of fact, it’s better that you just pick something that is easily doable. And it does not matter what you pick, pick something that sounds helpful. Remember your intuition is telling you that you have a problem, so your intuition will also tell you what will be a good choice, because your intuition is working to PROTECT you. Don’t be afraid of your intuition, we have intuition to help us survive.

      Reply
  9. Augusta Sugarbean

    Maybe it would help assuage some of your guilt to put this in terms of a trickle-down effect. Your staff probably realizes you have *something* going on even if they don’t know what exactly. But they see that you still are putting huge pressure on yourself to keep up your same performance level. So what message does that send to your staff? That if they have emergency surgery, they have to come back to work? That whatever stressful situation is happening in their personal lives, Work Must Be Done Perfectly.

    You sound conscientious and since you are here asking questions about how to do better, I assume you want to be a good manager to your staff. What would you tell an employee who came to you and said “I’m drowning in personal issues”? Now, go do those things for yourself.

    Reply
    1. BadPlanning

      Yes! I had a coworker who had surgery and was working the next day and taking customer calls while taking “the good stuff” pain medication.

      For a while, it made me paranoid if I had a serious health thing, I would have to do a song and dance to management about, “Anesthesia really throws me for a loop and pain medication can make me nauseous, I really don’t know that I’ll be able to bounce back before the doctor recommended time.”

      Reply
    2. Meg Murry

      +100% this. Pretend it isn’t you that’s drowning but one of your employees. How could you take things off their plate? Would you recommend they take FMLA to deal with the elderly relative that puts them on only a part-time schedule for the short term? Could someone else handle some of the things that you have taken on? Or could you task someone below you to streamline the requests and priorities so you don’t have to hold so much in your memory? Could you go to a less than full-time schedule so people would know not to expect you on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, for instance, rather than taking off sporadically? Is there a peer manager that you and your boss could discuss shifting some of these responsibilities on? Or a highly capable person on your team that you could put into a “team leader” role to do triage for you?

      What if your abdominal surgery hadn’t gone well and you’d been in an extended coma. What would they have done? Figure out how to implement at least some of that.

      Honestly, any of the one things you listed (surgery, caring for a relative, divorce) would be enough to strain even the best employee. No one will fault you for not being the 110% best A-game employee right now. And if you don’t want to tell your boss about the divorce right now, I might tell the white lie that you “are expecting a lot more appointments in the short term” and let them assume that it’s about your health or the elderly relative. Or even “dealing with some legal issues” – chances are they would assume it’s to do with your relative, not a divorce.

      One thing I would highly recommend would be that if you are eligible for FMLA that you get the paperwork for intermittent FMLA in order to care for your relative in place now – at least get together all the forms that would need to be filled out, talk to their doctors, etc. That way, if something does come up, you aren’t scrambling to deal with that too.

      Reply
      1. Gadfly

        A problem with advising FMLA–unless the elderly relative is a parent/in-law, they don’t count. Siblings don’t count as family, or aunts/uncles, or great aunts/uncles, or cousins of any type.

        FMLA is actually pretty limited in scope in a lot of ways, and not as much of a fix-all it often appears as if people believe it is.

        Reply
    3. Emi.

      Agreed! You should treat yourself as well as you treat your employees, and your employees will look at how you treat yourself to see how you will treat them. Self-care is win-win here.

      Reply
    4. The Final Pam

      This is a good point – a lot of how people think about taking time off starts at the top. My manager is really great about emphasizing work/life balance and is rarely available after hours because of it – it really helps emphasize that when she says we should have a good work/life balance that she in fact means it. If I was in an office where the boss didn’t take off when they needed to, would I feel comfortable taking time off? Maybe not.

      Reply
  10. always in email jail

    excellent advice as always. One piece of it in particular did not occur to me, which is the fact that, as alison said, you will be modeling positive behaviour to your employees. In that regard, I truly think you’re doing them a service.

    Reply
  11. medium of ballpoint

    If it feels like your staff is losing confidence, perhaps sharing a bit more information might help. In the absence of context, we tend to assume the worst about people and that may be what your staff is doing.

    I’m in a similar situation with my own supervisor. He’s a fantastic professional and one of the best supervisors I’ve ever had, but over the last six months or so it’s been clear that he’s dealing with some personal difficulties that are affecting his work. He’s a very private person, which we as his staff respect, but the continued absences and generally checked-out behavior run through goodwill much more quickly without context than with it. I don’t think we’d need many details (a general category of “chronic illness” or “family difficulties” would suffice), but it’s frustrating when his personal problems affect our workflow and we don’t have any control over or information about it. We wish him the best but I do think the way he’s handling this is starting to affect our overall assessment of him as a supervisor.

    I know I’m coming at this from the employee side, which might not be helpful right now. Best of luck and good thoughts to you, OP!

    Reply
    1. medium of ballpoint

      Whoops, I completely missed the paragraph where Alison mentioned this. Sorry for the too-quick readthrough!

      Reply
    2. Manders

      Something related to this for the OP to consider: if you’re currently the bottleneck through which approval for certain projects or stages of projects must pass, is that the kind of duty you can hand off to someone else or share with another employee?

      So much employee frustration about unavailable bosses boils down to, “I’m completing projects and then they’re just sitting on my boss’s desk waiting for approval/one more item I’m not supposed to do myself/permission to forward them to the next person in the chain.” If you feel like everyone’s projects will grind to a halt without your constant availability, that’s just too much pressure for one person.

      Reply
  12. ilikeaskamanager

    sending you good energy. I cannot improve on the suggestions already made. My only add on—taking care of yourself is your top priority. your job can and will find other people to do the work if you can’t. but no one else can take care of you.

    Reply
  13. Hiker 1546

    Wow, what a tough situation. Sending positive thoughts and energy your way to deal with all of this. And what excellent and thorough workplace advice from Alison for managers/supervisors dealing with difficult personal situations.

    Reply
  14. fposte

    OP, you are facing some tough stuff, and you are trying so hard! Kudos to you.

    I think this is a good example of a time where including people makes them more on your side. We’re all aware of the horror of TMI, but there’s also TLI–too little information; letting people in on your life a little is good for them as well as you.

    Reply
    1. Naruto

      I think that’s right. If you give them enough information to understand what’s going on and why you need help, they’re more likely to pitch in and help you out.

      Reply
  15. Isben Takes Tea

    I have a boss I respect a lot, and recently she had to take unexpected leave to deal with a highly stressful family situation she had been keeping under wraps. She always works so hard and deals with so much craziness at work that I was eager and thrilled to do whatever I could to make sure she had a work-free time away, even on a day I would normally have stayed home under the weather!

    Of course I appreciated the extra responsibility/experience, but I most appreciated the fact that my boss felt she could rely on me to take the load off for her for a time. It improved our relationship and my own attitude about my work and role.

    Reply
  16. Elemeno P.

    This is rough, and I hope things get better.

    A few years ago, I was co-supervising a section of the entertainment of a major event. The supervisor shifts were 14 hours overnight, with closing paperwork being done around 4am, and the bulk of the shift was putting out fires (with a new firs popping up every few minutes). It was a stressful position, and since we were supervising actors, we also had to be ON personality-wise to keep them energized and ready. No problem was too big and we could solve everything.

    During a rare break in the chaos, I looked at my phone and noticed a bunch of messages- my beloved high school English teacher had died. One of my actors came up right as I saw the news, and I sobbed in her face and walked off. I told the other supervisor I’d be back and just cried in a bathroom for half an hour. When I came back, the other supervisor and my entire cast surrounded me and hugged me. They knew me as the person who had it all together, who solved all the crises, who took care of every problem with a smile, and seeing me in that position didn’t make them think I was weak or a bad leader- they just wanted to support me through a tough time.

    I’m not recommending that you sob in front of your employees, of course, but letting people know that you sometimes just can’t handle everything like you usually do just lets them know that you’re human. Everyone needs help sometimes- all you have to do is ask.

    Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        It is good for people to be able to help.
        For our OP, that means giving them instructions on how they can help you. Maybe by just holding their own, or by streamlining how they need you. Maybe even by having those tough conversation with themselves! (seems funny, but I mean it)

        Give it some serious thought–how can they best help you? Then tell them this is what you need from them.

        Reply
    1. Jaydee

      Everyone experiences situations that upend their life in some way, whether it’s an illness, a family problem, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, etc. If you are the person that they always see being strong in the face of crises at work, seeing you be un-strong for a little while isn’t going to make people think less of you. It’s going to make them realize the magnitude of whatever you’re going through.

      Reply
  17. 42

    OP, what would you be telling a direct report if the roles were reversed and it was the DR who came to you with the same situation?

    I get the strong sense you would be very sympathetic and accommodating wherever you could. So please be as such with yourself. I’m pulling for you.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      And if it was the OP’s manager who was having difficulties and told the OP about them, what would that reaction be? I’m guessing it would be the same sympathetic response. So there isn’t anything to worry about. Get it out in the open and accept help from your colleagues.
      I hope everything settles down soon!

      Reply
  18. Julie B.

    Alison’s excellent advice of delegating off tasks applies for home as well as the office. I am senior staff in a high stress industry and I have a spouse who is going through some serious health issues. Balancing work and life has become tough. My therapist pointed out that while I’m good at managing work, I suck at managing my self and my self care. So……parroting what my therapist would say……..Look for ways to ease your burdens at home too. Do you have the financial resources to hire help for your elderly relative, like, a nurse or care-giver that stops by daily? Do you have family that can maybe assist? Can you hire house cleaners to take that task off your shoulders? Can you hire a helper to do your grocery shopping (or look into the online shopping services offered by your local grocery)? Ditto on doing laundry or finding a laundry service. Are there caterers in your area that do a couple-of-nights-a-week subscription service of “dinners-to-go”? (There are in my area, and they specialize in local, organic, and nutritious meals.)

    Reply
    1. PlainJane

      This. It’s perfectly fine to prioritize your own needs. Let nonessential things go, hire help, lower your standards for stuff like housecleaning. Put yourself at the top of your priority list. I know this is easy to say and very hard to do, but I’ve dealt with a few major crisis periods, and I survived in part by narrowing my focus to only the stuff I truly had to do–and asking for help with some of that. Hang in there, OP.

      Reply
    2. RVA Cat

      I was just thinking of that. If the OP is the primary caregiver for the elderly relative, they are effectively working two jobs. There’s a reason why most employers won’t allow you to WFH when you don’t have child care – and elder care may be even more taxing. Also, OP may want to speak with the relative’s doctor(s) to gauge when the relatives’ needs go beyond the OP’s abilities as a non-professional.

      Reply
    3. Gadfly

      Look into assistance through insurance as well (the elderly person’s). People have fought hard to get more help to stay home versus going to “a Home”. It is expensive, and a lot of people don’t utilize it because of pride. But even just a few hours a week can be a godsend.

      Reply
  19. Dizzy Steinway

    I’m so sorry things have been so rough. Sooner or later something has to give – and if you’re not careful that something will be you.

    I kept trying to work during a very stressful period in my life. Didn’t want to let anyone down. One day I collapsed on the floor. Just sat down and crumbled. I was a freelancer with a gigantic project due that week that I hadn’t got even halfway through. I knew I wasn’t well enough but I didn’t want to let down Wakeen, a long-time client. So I kept trying to carry on and getting more and more stressed and unwell. Then I sat down on the floor and couldn’t get up.

    I had to ask my husband to call Wakeen and explain. I figured that was it: I’d never work for him again. Maybe for anyone. But do you know what he said? He said he was sorry to hear that and to let him know when I was ready to come back and wanted more work. If I’d imagined he might say that, I would have stopped before I collapsed.

    Every one of my clients was kind and understanding. Nothing I was afraid of – those fears of career suicide that stopped me giving myself the break I needed – actually happened. I let down four clients in totals. Not one of them fired me from their freelance roster. All of them were incredibly kind. I continued to work for all of them for another four and a half years, until I got a new job and closed my business.

    Good people, people worth working for, know that sometimes life is hard, that sometimes you need to ease up. Your sanity and wellbeing have to come first. It’s not a choice between giving yourself that break or carrying on at full throttle indefinitely while feeling awful, because sooner or later you will hit the wall. Ease up now. Be gentle with yourself now, when you can choose to, when you can plan how to ease up, because it’s much harder to do when you’ve got to breaking point. One person can only do so much. And if there’s nobody else to carry the load, they’ll just have to get someone else.

    I wish you peace and strength.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Also–the sooner you communicate with these people you are “letting down,” the better you look, and the easier it is on them.

      Reply
      1. Marillenbaum

        That’s a really important point: I’m a Teaching Assistant working with undergrads, and one of the big things I always tell my students is that there’s a lot I can do to help you if you’re struggling–but I CANNOT help you if you don’t come to me. I need you to tell me “I’m struggling”, so I can help you use the resources to which you are entitled.

        Reply
  20. animaniactoo

    OP, you’ve gotten really good work advice from Alison. I’d like to focus for a moment on life advice, which could have a big impact on work and life potentially.

    Here’s the thing – I’m wondering if you know how to say “no”. At the very least, holding it in the face of any kind of pressure.

    Where I’m getting that from:

    • You say you’re conflict avoidant
    • You describe the move in with the elderly relative as “had to”
    • It seems this was followed by your spouse initiating divorce?
    • You showed up to do interviews because there was no one else to do them, rather than rescheduling them.

    So… what I suspect that means is that other people convinced you that you were the one who had to do this thing with the elderly relative because it was the “solution that works best for everyone”, where “everyone” means “everybody else” no matter how much disruption it caused to your life.

    I suspect it means that it was the last straw for your spouse who either is tired of coming in dead last in your priorities arrangement too often OR is upset that you’ve found a priority other than them and have essentially said “no” to them for the first time, in a pretty big way, when it came to their wants/needs.

    I suspect it means you have essentially been a superwoman at your office and are concerned that they’re going to lose confidence in you because of some “no”s being introduced into the mix. Which absolutely can happen when you give people unrealistic expectations by never saying no before.

    And from that will spiral down a few more unfortunate events of things that might have been more in control if you were up for saying “no” in the face of pressure.

    If any of this feels true for you, I really suggest that you look into therapy because you need someone to work with you while you train yourself to be able to pushback. It’s important for you to be able to pushback, because this is how you retain more (not total, nobody’s got that) control over how events in your life affect you. It gives you more options to figure out how to react, to look longer for other solutions, to accept less than optimal but still good enough solutions, when you can say “no”. It gives you the benefit of knowing that “no” IS an option, and you’re not helpless in the face of it all. And that instead of somebody being mad at you about something, maybe it’s yours to react with anger to the idea that not only are they asking/pushing something unreasonable at you, they’re getting mad when you won’t do the unreasonable thing! How dare they! At which point, you can draw a deep breath… and calmly repeat that “no”. Without caring that they’re upset with you or don’t like you right then.

    Worth thinking about it even if this is only halfway to where you find yourself.

    Reply
    1. J.B.

      Yes on therapy. Even with garden variety crud (and this is much much more than garden variety) it helps to talk through the issues and to realize where you really can back off or set boundaries.

      Reply
    2. Natalie

      So… what I suspect that means is that other people convinced you that you were the one who had to do this thing with the elderly relative because it was the “solution that works best for everyone”, where “everyone” means “everybody else” no matter how much disruption it caused to your life.

      Also worth considering if *you* are the one convincing you that you need to do everything. Many of the people I’ve known who couldn’t say no or pushback on expectations were their own worst enemy. They never needed to say no to anyone because they volunteered to Do All The Things.

      Reply
  21. Shamy

    While not in a management position, I am a high performer that also had an extremely difficult past year. I lost both grandparents and my ex husband moved out within four days. 5 months later my mother passed away suddenly followed by my 5 year old dog one month later who actually had a seizure while my mother was in the ICU. This was all while balancing single motherhood, a rigorous internship needed for my field, and my job. Just as things began turning around, I had my own health issues that resulted in a hospitalization for a week that has left me immunocompromised for months.

    The one thing we have going for us is that we are high performers. Our bosses know that this isn’t our norm. My own boss has encouraged me numerous times to be more gentle with myself and I suspect yours would too. I really agree with the whole idea of a role reversal people have mentioned. Think about what you would tell a report undergoing these challenges. I did a similar thing as you when I got out of the hospital. I came to work with a PICC line in my arm 2 days later, despite being no where near well enough to work. Please, please don’t be so hard on yourself. You have been through a lot of trauma and need to allow yourself time to heal.

    Reply
  22. J.B.

    I am so sorry OP. And I would suggest from the employee side that you do cut yourself some slack, take FMLA as needed, and consciously delegate. I have recently seen someone juggle, juggle, juggle until everything crashed down. And it was far far worse then. Please take care of yourself and give people what they need to cover for you.

    Reply
  23. Temperance

    LW, I have tremendous empathy for what you’re going through. I had to set major boundaries with life stuff after I had a major health crisis last year. My load wasn’t as bad as yours; I was out for over a month unexpectedly with no warning, and then I had months of physical therapy in addition to the Commute From Hell that sapped all my energy (both ways tripling, from 35 minutes to over 90 … each way). It was awful.

    I chose to focus on getting healthy and work, and I declined all family obligations/requests for that period of time. It unfortunately sounds like you’re stuck caregiving at the moment, but I encourage you to get your other family members to step up and offer you respite. I wish you the best.

    Reply
  24. anon attorney

    This is really good advice – practical and compassionate.

    Being a high performer usually comes with a side of having high standards. That’s a good thing … until you start using them to judge yourself. If a friend came to you and explained she was in the same situation, what would you say? Perhaps you would say “scale back, nothing is as important as your own health, people will understand”. Can you say this to yourself, too?

    The only other thing I wanted to add was that I have found being clear with people at work about your limits during difficult times is treated as a sign of self-efficacy and respected. Last year, my father had to have major surgery (which was successful, I’m glad to say) while my husband was entering the terminal stages of his illness. He passed away just before Christmas. Over this period of time, I worked through certain phases (because it helped me as much as it helped the firm) and took time off when I needed it. I returned to work full-time in the new year, but I am very clear with the partners and other staff that there are certain parts of the role that I currently do not have the capacity to do well, and therefore do not wish to do at all. I am lucky in that I work somewhere with a very supportive culture but my point is that my bosses have responded really well to me setting these boundaries and it has worked a lot better than me trying to do it, screwing up, and falling into a self-blame horror spiral. Also, there are days when I just cannot get it together to go to work (e.g. if I have had a sleepless night) and it’s understood that it’s OK for me to work from home – usually I can manage to achieve something, but only if I don’t expend energy getting dressed, commuting, etc. This flexibility really helps me cope.

    My boss has explicitly said that she appreciates me being clear with her about what I need, and what I can and can’t cope with right now, because she wants to help and it gives her a steer. For my part the flexibility and support means I am more loyal to the firm than I might otherwise be given the pay and other aspects which aren’t super ideal.

    It is OK to ask for some accommodation to the worst times of your life. One day, you might be the person who is giving your boss/direct report some slack. The bad times come to us all eventually. Let people help you through yours.

    Finally, can I just say, with my professional head on – have you got a divorce attorney? If not, please consider doing so – the good ones among us make things easier and less conflicted, not harder.

    Wishing you all the best.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca in Dallas

      Absolutely. There are times in our life when we have to “lean back” from work to deal with personal issues. I had a similar phase last year (my husband had major surgery, my best friend’s partner died by suicide and my husband also lost his job– all within a week!). Your boss and coworkers are human, too. They’ll understand. Everyone pitched in while I needed to be in and out. And I’d do the same for them.

      Reply
  25. Lora

    This internet stranger is so very sorry that you’re going through this sh!tshow. Truly. Have been there – nasty divorce followed by breast cancer diagnosis followed by crummy job I took for the money causing me insane amounts of stress followed by my elderly mother needing care, it was one thing after another. I rapidly concluded that god not only existed but hated me personally and wanted to see how much torture I could take before I snapped.

    Here’s what helped me, which may or may not be useful:

    1. Get to your primary care doctor and explain what all you’re going through in your personal life, and ask if there’s anything they can prescribe for the stress. I used to be very much against taking SSRIs for situational depression, but my goodness it made a world of difference to walk into the courtroom and stand next to my abusive ex, and I was cool as a cucumber. It helps. Even if it’s just a bit of trazodone to help you sleep, or whatever will help you feel better. They can also refer you to a therapist who doesn’t actually have to serve any function other than listen to you vent.

    2. Assemble a group of friends to hang out with once a month, and make it a regular thing that you get together for a drink and a potluck dinner or whatever. You need little breathers from the pressure sprinkled liberally throughout your life, and hanging out with supportive friends periodically will give your brain something to look forward to. It helps a lot to have something to look forward to, because then you tell yourself, “I just have to make it to Thursday” or whatever. If you can work in a once a week exercise/yoga/meditation/whatever class, that’s good too. Massage therapy also helps.

    3. Find someone who can be a reality check for you at work. I thought for a while that a new re-org that resulted in a horrible monster-boss was because I was just terrible, but there were two other women in the department that this d-bag managed and they were just as miserable as me – one quit for a job with less money and no benefits, the other was sobbing in her cubicle weekly. If I hadn’t known for sure that these two eminently reasonable, competent, brilliant people were also miserable in the position, I’d have reckoned it was all me, just sucking at life.

    4. As a manager you can delegate more. At least there’s that. And you can ask colleagues in other departments for favors – especially if they owe you any favors, now is the time to call it in. Look at your workload and see if there’s anything another department could conceivably take over, which might be either equally or more related to their function than yours. See if someone in another group wants a cross-training opportunity or whatever. Is there anything in your workload which you currently do by hand based on institutional knowledge, which you could put in a procedure and train someone else to do? Make procedures and templates wherever you can.

    5. When you get the invariable “everything is a #1 priority” nonsense from someone, give them a deadline (e.g. “by 12:00 tomorrow”) to prioritize for real or you’re going to move ahead with your own judgment. They might tell you at 12:01, but they’ll tell you. I’ve had decision-makers procrastinate on things for weeks and months, expecting me to juggle their indecision and lack of forethought/planning for ages because they were risk-averse or whatever, until I said, “make a decision or I will make one for you.” You need to be able to plan your activities so you can tell when will be a good time for doctor appointments, lawyer meetings, etc and in order to do that you can’t tolerate a whole lot of waffling and uncertainty.

    6. Say NO. Lots. If someone wants you to do a thing which is in the least little bit outside of the core mandate of your department (e.g. working up a new pecan praline teapot prototype, because your department does the chocolate design prototypes so well), just tell them you don’t have bandwidth. Focus on only the things that your department has to do and nothing else. Let it be someone else’s problem. They will figure it out, even if they have to hire a Caramel Nut Consultant and pay a fortune – they will at least realize the value of your efforts.

    7. Some things you actually don’t have to do at all; they are make-work. There’s a lot of things which are occasionally mentioned to me as something to do but I don’t actually HAVE to do them. I don’t have to get vendor quotes, monitor time sheets in detail (I skim to make sure the project codes are correct), arrange lunches, sit through certain meetings, have formal meetings on a schedule with other people in my department, make PowerPoint slide decks, or various other things that some of my peers do obsessively. Nobody ever thanks me for doing those things and I don’t benefit from it. There’s probably some make-work things you can cut completely which are really just nice-to-haves and nobody will even notice if you stop doing it. “Hey, didn’t you used to send out an XYZ report?” Yah, 6 months ago. “What happened to it?” *shrug* Nobody read it. “Oh.”

    8. See what you can automate. A lot of reports and things, you can make into a database query rather than writing out a whole report.

    Again, really sorry you’re going through this. Stay strong!

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      automate: templates, lists, routines (and “subroutines)
      There is HUGE power in this.

      Oh, and delegating: Now is the time to see if some of YOUR top performers could actually do some of these things for you.

      And…see if some routines, templates, lists & checklists, and delegating, etc., would help you AT HOME.
      Like–order groceries online. Get a cleaning lady (even if only once a month, just for now). Put a list by the door for what you take to the doctor’s.
      Reducing stress everywhere will help.

      I remember that study about how people only have X number of decisions in them for each day. President Obama simplified his suits so he didn’t “use up” his decisions on them. Is there something like that you can do?
      Example: Make a list of meals, and buy the groceries for them. Always eat yogurt for lunch until you’re sick of it, then switch to a chicken sandwich and eat that over and over until you’re ready to move on to hummus and pita, and then back to yogurt.

      And, stop caring much about things like lunch and clothes; just for now, turn a few things (at home AND at work) into: “Just do the bare minimum.”

      Reply
    2. Emmie

      If you are up to it, OP, there are a few more things to consider:
      * Are you holding onto processes that belong elsewhere? This happens often when people have held multiple positions, been at the company a long time, or seen staffing shifts. Transition those to their rightful owner. It’s the right thing to do. It will also free up your time.
      * Are there staff members who’d like to be developed for higher positions, or on specific tasks? As we gain higher level of competency, we need to focus more on the strategic parts of leading a team and less on the task parts of managing process. Think about what those things are for you. Coach people on developing those skills or pair them with someone who can.
      * Think about employees cross-training each other. Sometimes the stuff that people do falls in the manager’s to-do list on extended time off. Having a back ups reduces the ask on you.
      * What kinds of emotional parts of management are exhausting to you right now? This can vary wildly across organizations, but perhaps there’s a solution to some of these issues if there’s a larger pattern. (Manage out troubling employee; general staff statements; one on one discussions.)
      I am so very sorry you’re going through this. I had some serious issues a few years ago that impacted my prior job. It was very difficult. You are not alone. Take some time to focus on you. Adjust your standards for yourself. If you are a high achiever, you’re probably used to handling things yourself. That’s not necessary. Thinking of you.

      Reply
  26. B

    Oh OP, I have been there! The confluence of events where it all happens in rapid succession can devastating emotionally and physically, you have my hugs. Talking to a social worker was monumentally helpful to me especially as they are able to give you some good coping mechanisms. As well, I would suggest talking to your boss and employees as Alison suggested. They do not need to know everything but letting them know you have things going on can be extremely beneficial.

    Reply
  27. Sparrow

    To add another employee perspective here – last summer, my boss’s father died after a long, trying battle with cancer. She probably overshared with the details, but the fact that we did know what was going on made it easier to adapt to the fact that she was out of the office frequently – often without warning – and gave us clear expectations about how much (or how little, in this case) oversight and feedback we’d be getting in this period. My boss was never a micromanager, but I operated almost entirely independently for several months, and I was able to adapt as necessary for troubleshooting/signoffs since I knew her availability was limited. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t forever, and we made it work. She also made a point to factor my adaptability and self-sufficiency during this period into my performance eval for the year.

    All that is to say: you’re human, and your employees know that. If you clue them in, I imagine they’ll be more than willing to step up and help you out.

    Reply
  28. DMouse

    Chiming in as another person who went through this type of situation and see a lot of really good suggestions already here. I’d like to add on one point from the letter, about feeling that you’re letting people down because you’re usually a top performer. I was the go-to person for everything at my office, never missed a deadline, always reliable, etc. When my life fell apart, I also felt bad about not being all of those things anymore. What I found was that my company, boss, and coworkers totally understood that the change was because of my personal situation, because I had that good reputation. If I missed a deadline or made a mistake, they didn’t question my competence, because they knew from years of working together that it was out of character for me. (And I’ll add that I DID miss deadlines and make mistakes. Mistakes that were totally surprising to me because it would never have happened in normal times.) Unless you have really crappy, disfunctional people at your work, most people will be supportive.

    One other thing, I love Lora’s list of suggestions, and one in particular was really helpful – I was going to a support group for caregivers, and the structured group wasn’t really helping me. So a few of us started a smaller group where we just meet for coffee once a week to hang out and talk about whatever we want. Since we’ve all dealt with really crappy stuff, we’re able to be there for each other, without needing it to be a formal thing. Sometimes we talk about our serious problems, and the rest of the time just be there as friends.

    Reply
  29. Elizabeth the Ginger

    Oh my goodness, I’ve been going through this, lite-version, right now. I’m coming back off maternity leave and it was just much harder than I anticipated – baby couldn’t figure out bottles so wanted to nurse all night, conveniently-located daycare turned out to have insane traffic all around it at rush hour, I immediately got sick, etc. – and the teaching job I felt very competent at pre-leave suddenly became overwhelming. Our school counselor noticed how stressed I was and sent me a wonderful email saying, “I know you are someone who is very responsible in your professional life and that it can be hard to feel like you’re not doing a good job with your profession… you are a great mother and are doing an amazing job juggling parenting and work. The first months are hardest and it will get better.”

    I’ve been metaphorically carrying that email in my pocket for weeks now, and already it is getting better. OP, you’re dealing with more than I’ve been, so it’ll take longer… but it will get better. Take care of yourself. Listen to all the stories people are sharing in this thread and know that many of your reports have similar stories in their pasts as well. You don’t need to share more with them than you’re comfortable sharing, but know that it’s not unprofessional to have tough things happen in your personal life. Both your reports and your boss will understand if they are decent humans, and when things are going better for you personally you’ll be back to 100% professionally as well.

    Reply
  30. Tex

    OP – could you designate or have your boss assign someone as your deputy?

    That way people know who to turn to in case you aren’t around, this person can also help with some of your routine responsibilities while you concentrate on higher level issues. You could pitch it to your boss as an experimental period to groom someone for managerial responsibilities.

    Reply
    1. Gadfly

      Or even a few deputies–John covers questions about Teapot availability and tracking, Jane covers any issues with ordering and financing, etc

      Reply
  31. Marietta

    Another thought – when I went through a tremendous personal crisis, it helped that work was the one place I could escape all of those problems. In doing so, I did well at work throughout the crisis, which gave me some self-esteem during a time when my personal life was in tatters. It won’t work for everyone in every situation, obviously.

    Reply
  32. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)

    Oh my gosh, you have so much going on right now! I had a year like that myself, and I clearly remember the feeling of being overwhelmed about *everything.* I don’t have any advice for you, but I’m sending you all kinds of love and strength and good wishes for getting through it all.

    Reply
  33. NW Mossy

    We’ve talked a bunch here about how being a high performer gives you chips to cash in when personal crisis strikes, but I’d also like to point out that if you’ve got a decent boss who wants you to succeed, you don’t have to be the team’s perennial rock star to get some grace to get your act together.

    I’m currently managing a middle-of-the-pack employee who’s got some major stuff going on, and it’s important to me to extend him goodwill and reasonable support (EAP, FMLA, etc.) for not only his benefit but for that of me and my team. I want to be the kind of boss who’s a support rather than a stressor during a crisis, and I want the rest of my team to see that as well (they’re aware of his situation). It’s about creating a culture where we can be human and have our lives temporarily fall apart but still be able to see that we’re valued, respected, and capable of getting through this. I don’t want anyone to think that the work they do for me is more important than caring for their own well-being, and this is one way to show that.

    Reply
      1. NW Mossy

        It becomes something of a virtuous circle, too. When a boss shows through their behavior that they will extend help, people feel more comfortable asking for it when it’s needed. Conversely, you can have a situation where a boss that extends slaps on the hand never hears about critical issues because they’ve trained their employees to keep quiet through negative reinforcement.

        Reply
  34. TheExchequer

    As someone who was working as a tutor who had a Series of Unfortunate Events happen to me, even in that entry level part time job, my bosses went out of their way to be accommodating to me when I was not myself. I’d offer you a hug and cookie, if that wouldn’t be weird coming from an internet stranger, and tell you what they told me: it will take longer than you probably think, but it will get better. And they were right. :)

    Reply
  35. TootsNYC

    This might be a good time for a job coach–if not a pro, then maybe a good friend w/ similar responsibilities (or just a good, sensible brain) with whom you can plot out your most necessary work moves. Someone not your boss and not an employee, who can help you strategize.

    Reply
  36. AdAgencyChick

    I love everything about this response, but especially the bit at the end about what OP’s direct reports might be thinking.

    Smart money says at least one of them is freaked out by the idea that OP worked on a day that she was going in for a major medical procedure and wonders whether OP expects that same willingness to sacrifice work-life balance from them.

    Reply
  37. nbbuyer

    I’ve had a lot of personal struggles over the last two years (close family member diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, death of a child), and I still have things going on which are very distracting (impending divorce, potential DV situation, three additional family members living in my house, and two kids with additional needs: one with an IEP, and the other a 504 plan, whom I’ve been called about 5 times in the last three weeks). At what point is it better to just stay out of work as opposed to going in? My department is short-staffed already, so when I come in, I do get work done, but I’m definitely not as productive as I could be. Today, for example, I didn’t get in until the afternoon. Then, not 2 hours after I’d been at work, I got a phone call about my youngest at school. I feel like crying and am having a hard time concentrating, but going home isn’t going to help the situation. I just don’t know what to do. My supervisor does know what’s going on personally, so she’s been very patient and understanding, but I still don’t want to take advantage of her kindness, and I don’t want to be wasting a lot of my company’s time either. And, FWIW, I have been to my EAP, I have been to see a counselor and a psychologist, and I have several prescriptions that I take faithfully. This question is just about how to handle myself at work while simultaneously having my personal life explode. Any advice/support/encouragement is appreciated :) Thank you!

    Reply
  38. Anon Today

    Alison’s response is absolutely right. I wrote in a while back about struggling to recover from my Dad’s death, and she’s right about the “political capital” you have built up. As a top performer, your colleagues KNOW your abilities and work ethic.

    Talk to your own manager. Let your staff know a little of what’s going on. No, you don’t have to give them 10,000 details, but just, “I’m dealing with a lot of things outside of work right now. They are affecting me, but this will not last forever.” People often need to feel needed, so delegate, and you might be surprised at how much they support you.

    I have a family member who’s using work capital right now. Won a statewide award for Employee of the Year. Next day, spouse says, “I want a divorce.” Out of the blue, no warning. Family member has straight-up told boss, “This is going to affect my work. I’m going to need some time and flexibility.” And due to the demonstrated work ethic and ability, that’s not going to be a problem.

    Take some time off, if you can at all. Besides the emotional and physical impact of everything, you presumably need to make some business decisions due to the divorce. Getting away from the office can help make those decisions – whether you go for a run or hike, meditate, or just sit in your PJs and stare at ice cream. Take some “you” time.

    And hang in there! Internet hugs and the virtual junk food of your choice.

    Reply
  39. depressed anon

    What do you do if the issue is not a specific life crisis, but anxiety and depression?

    In my case the mental health issues are exacerbated by the fact that I am getting ready to move, but it’s not a particularly disastrous move or anything.

    I am working with a psychiatrist but she only sees patients during the work day and I haven’t been here long enough to be able to take PTO. Also, even if I had perfectly convenient access to health care, it is taking a really long time to find a medication that actually works, and all of them seem to have side effects; eg medication A will decrease anxiety but reduce energy and concentration, medication B will increase focus but also make anxiety worse.

    I am trying my best but I’m sure to anyone who doesn’t know my situation it looks like I’m lazy and don’t care. It takes all my energy to get out of bed and get to work and be only 15 minutes late, as opposed to being an hour late or just staying in bed. But I’m sure to anyone else it looks like I just don’t care enough to be on time.

    Is there even anything I can do or say to people at work about this?

    Reply
    1. AnonyMouse

      Just wanted to reach out and send you some hugs, if they’re wanted. I was in a similar position last year. Diagnosed with anxiety, ild depression and had a bunch of physical health issues at the same time. I found this helpful, so sharing with you: https://captainawkward.com/2013/02/16/450-how-to-tighten-up-your-game-at-work-when-youre-depressed/

      Specifically for getting out the door on time, things that helped me were: laying out all of my clothes and packing my bag before going to sleep, so all I had to do in the morning was get out of bed, brush my teeth, put on my clothes and get out the door — so no energy was wasted on decision making. Sometimes I put my alarm across the room to motivate that first step. It has also helped me to say to myself, “All you need to do is — X” (i.e., I don’t have to face all my anxieties about the whole day yet. I just need to brush my teeth. And just brushing my teeth doesn’t seem THAT hard, I guess. I can do that.)

      I would add that anxiety/depression etc can make it hard for you to clearly gauge how well you’re doing. I was having near panic attacks, worried that my boss was thinking that I was slacking off, and truly I was struggling hard some days to get work done, but I did make sure I was on time, professionally dressed, organized, and never over-promised on what I could deliver (using some tips from that captain awkward post). I did not think my boss would be understanding if I told him I had mental health issues, so I never told him. Surprisingly, at my year end review he told me I was doing great. Such a relief, and also a reminder that I could ease some of the pressure I’d been putting on myself. I’m lucky that I had a really good track record, so I wasn’t under scrutiny anyway, which it seems you may not have had time to build up yet, but just being put together goes a long way, and don’t be too hard on yourself!

      Reply
      1. depressed anon

        Thanks for the reminder that the jerkbrain lies, and tells me I’m doing worse than I am.

        I have read the Captain Awkward post before and always felt intimidated by the thought of being more punctual and put together when the thought of doing pretty much anything is overwhelming. I like your advice on being on time.

        Reply
  40. Chaordic One

    IF you do delegate some of your tasks to your reports, and IF your reports are able to step up and do a credible job of taking on the additional tasks, you really need to let them know that you are aware of the extra tasks they’ve taken on and that you appreciate it.

    When things get better (and they will) you need to remember those who helped you out. In my unfortunate experience too many supervisors develop amnesia when annual review time comes around.

    Reply
  41. sajohnso23

    OP,
    I feel for you and went through similar feelings myself. I was promoted to a team lead position, went through a break up, moved out with my ex and also found out about a pregnancy/miscarriage all within a 3 month period. It was hard to keep it together at work and I always felt like I was drowning in personal issues.

    Although I didn’t need to take anytime off from work during this crisis, I tried to manage myself. For example, if I thought my ex would contact me while I was at work I would stop bringing in my phone so I could eliminate the potential personal distraction in the workplace. At home I would turn off my phone and only respond to work requests during working hours so I could work on my own self healing process. This kind of thing helped me create some sort of normality while dealing with all these issues.

    Also do you have a hobby/sport you really enjoy? During this time I rediscovered hobbies I loved doing as a kid which helped me get through this rough patch in my life. This was six months ago and its finally starting to feel like everything is calming down. Hang in there, it will get better even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

    Reply
  42. Geoffrey B

    Being able to tell your staff “I’m going through some rough stuff at the moment and will be a bit distracted” etc. is actually doing them a big favour. There’s a widespread and very harmful expectation that people should project an aura of invulnerability in the workplace. I’m very grateful to the managers who were willing to mention their own vulnerabilities because it told me that I could give them the same honesty in return without being written off as “weak”.

    Reply
  43. ArtsNerd

    HUGS to the OP!

    I want to address the “hundreds of miles from peer managers and boss” situation, since I think that might be tied to the “come in on the day of surgery” thing.

    Dealing with any one of these things can feel super isolating, plus you are physically isolated from your peers and manager, which would only exacerbate that. Here’s the thing, though – you are NOT alone in this. You are not on your own to problem-solve this. Your peers and managers are still your peers and managers, even if you’re physically separated. Please lean on them as a resource, just as Alison advises you to utilise your own staff.

    It sounds like it’s time to rally what Captain Awkward calls “Team You.” It’s ideal if you can recruit someone you trust (AAM! Us! But also hopefully someone local to you?) to bounce your professional anxieties and questions off of and provide an outsider perspective. Because again, you are NOT on your own for these things.

    Be kind to yourself, OP.

    https://criminalreviews.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/a-captain-awkward-glossary/#teamyou

    Reply
  44. Jo

    Wow, this is so timely. I’ve been dealing with a similar confluence of events lately (albeit not quite as serious) that essentially resulted in major burnout and a relapse back into depression and anxiety.

    Unfortunately, mine hit me a month into a new job, before I had time to establish myself — which resulted in me just being let go from that job. My boss even mentioned as he was firing me that he doesn’t see the same person he did a few months ago when I started.

    The sad thing is that even though being let go has destroyed me, I can’t really blame them. Yes, my performance suffered significantly. I was not able to live up to my normal standards; I could barely focus, the parts of the job that normally I find difficult were nearly impossible for me to to do, everything took much longer to accomplish than it should have – if I was able to accomplish it at all. I stopped caring about anything, anything at all.

    It was just really terrible timing that this all happened so soon after starting the job, before I had built up any political capital.

    However, now I’ve got even more anxiety, depression, fear, shame, etc., to deal with while somehow trying to push that all down long enough to find a new job (which I will also undoubtedly fail at due to the above-mentioned issues). I also have to inform my parents that, just as they expected, I’m a total failure yet again and will most likely end up living in their basement again where they can constantly tell me what a failure I am and how kind and generous they are to let me stay there. I’m half hoping I get kidnapped before I leave so I don’t have to deal with all this.

    OP, you are so incredibly lucky that you’ve got the ability to take a step back and recover, without having to worry about losing your job. Look after yourself, know that this should only be temporary, and that you won’t have the add the anxiety of job-searching on top of everything else you’re already dealing with. That’s a gift, one you’ve earned through your exemplary performance prior to this.

    Best wishes for everything, and e-hugs!

    Reply
    1. Halpful

      *jedi hugs*

      Jo, you might benefit from the resources at https://www.reddit.com/r/raisedbynarcissists/wiki/helpfullinks – it’s no wonder you’re depressed with parents saying such awful things. :( Nobody deserves that.
      (Also, check out the Captain Awkward links in other comments if you haven’t already)

      I guess not having a job makes it harder to get therapy and medications, so, here’s the books I started with: http://www.amazon.ca/The-Mindful-Way-through-Depression/dp/1593851286 and http://www.amazon.ca/Feeling-Good-The-Mood-Therapy/dp/0380810336

      Reply
  45. NPA

    I am supervising someone in a very similar situation. It is challenging to support her while ensuring that she meets performance marks and my team meets its goals.

    Reply

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