should I tell my boss about a personal situation that might affect my work?

A reader writes:

I am currently dealing with a very stressful home situation. It’s been an ongoing issue for several months, but things have escalated badly in the past week and it’s having a serious impact on my mental health. I’m doing my best to resolve the situation, but there is no instant fix. I may be dealing with this for weeks, or even months. I am trying to figure out how much of this to share at work, specifically with my boss.

A senior coworker asked me today if I was willing to take on a task for one of her team members who will be out next month, and to possibly consider taking on that task permanently. The task would not be a huge lift for me, even as an ongoing responsibility, and I would not normally be averse to it. But the thought of taking on a new responsibility right now, in the middle of this unresolved and serious domestic drama, made me feel ill. I ended up going out to my car to call her to try to explain that normally my answer would be yes, but I didn’t feel that I could do it this month because I was genuinely worried that if things get worse at home, I might … I don’t think I said “I’m worried I might flake on it” but I think I implied it?

My coworker was sympathetic and understanding, and she made it clear her primary concern is my safety and well-being. The question of me taking over this task is currently off the table, and we’ll revisit it when my home life is more stable. However, she also gently suggested that I should probably clue my actual boss into this, even if just in general terms, especially if things at home continue to escalate.

I feel like she’s right, but I don’t know what to say — how much to say at all, and the safest way to say it.

I am normally good at compartmentalizing, and my work has mostly been unaffected through this. But there have been two instances in the last six months where something happened on the home front during the work week, and I was sleepwalking through my job afterwards. I feel like the fact that I felt compelled to call my coworker and bring this up at all (I’m normally pretty private) is an indication that my home situation IS affecting my work more than I’d realized.

My boss is a good person, and my company is actively trying to create a culture that is supportive of employees dealing with this kind of thing. I’ve worked here for almost three years, my annual reviews are good, and I’m well-liked in my department. However, I still feel a tremendous amount of anxiety at confiding any of this to my boss! Letting personal drama affect my work is contrary to the professional persona I’ve worked hard to establish. And once it’s out there, it’s out there. My preference would be not to say anything at all, and to keep working on resolving the home situation. But if things do get worse before they better, and this does start to have a more substantial impact on my work, I suspect my coworker is right and it would be better if my boss had that context ahead of time.

If you were my boss, how much information would you want to have in a situation like this? What would be most useful for you to know? What would you NOT want to know?

First and foremost, I hope you’re okay, that this gets resolved quickly, and that you have the support you need.

I do think you should talk to your boss. It will be helpful to both of you if she knows something is going on in your personal life that’s affecting you right now. That way, if she does notice behavior that seems out of character for you, she’ll have that background and will be less likely to interpret it as something other than what it is. Otherwise, there’s a risk that her mind will fill in the blanks on its own and she could end up thinking that you’re checked out (because of burnout, or because you’re unhappy and thinking of leaving), or that you’re less attentive to detail than you used to be (which could seem like a performance issue she needs to address), or that you can’t handle the new project you were offered, or so forth.

You don’t need to give details. It’s enough to simply say, “I want to let you know I’m dealing with some stress in my personal life right now. I’m working on resolving it, but I’m mentioning it to you so that you have context in case I seem off.” A manager who’s respectful of your privacy won’t push for details, but if yours does, you can say, “It’s nothing I want to get into at work, but I appreciate your concern.” Sometimes when people press for details, they’re not trying to be nosy as much as they’re expressing concern, so another option is to respond that she doesn’t need to worry: “It’s nothing to worry about, and it’ll be okay in the long run. It’ll just take some time to work through.” Only say that if it’s true, though. No need to downplay the reality.

Before you have this conversation, think about whether there’s anything specific you want to ask for. For example, maybe you want to ask that no optional new projects be added to your plate right now, or to push back a couple of nonessential tasks until later. Or maybe you want to play it by ear, but it’ll still be useful to have your boss know that you might be less equipped to take on extra work than you normally would be, so that she’s not surprised if you do end up turning something down (as you did with your co-worker).

These are reasonable things to ask for. You’re not asking for carte blanche to skip out on work every other day. You’re not requesting to keep vodka in your desk, or to be cut enormous amounts of slack for the next year. You’re just saying, “Something’s going on in my personal life, and I want to be realistic about how it’s affecting my bandwidth while it gets fixed.”

And frankly, even if you were asking for less reasonable accommodations, it would still be far better to name what you need and talk about solutions rather than to let things slide without addressing it, prompting your boss to draw her own conclusions. But again, what you describe needing isn’t in that category.

Your biggest obstacle here, I think, is that you see this as personal drama that doesn’t mesh with your professional persona, but I promise you that it’s not true. It’s not unprofessional to be a human experiencing human stressors. And managers hear things like this from employees all the time! People go through all sorts of difficult experiences outside of work — illness, divorce, estrangement from family, legal troubles, grief. That’s life. So having these kinds of conversations ends up being a pretty normal part of the job for most managers.

In fact, if anything, you’re likely to look more on top of your work by initiating this conversation, because doing so says that you’re self-aware and conscientious and forthright, not someone who won’t realize or care if you’re slipping up. Those are all good things.

Talk to your boss.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. Starbuck*

    I really hope LW is able to give her boss the context that’s needed to support her and understand the decisions she’s making re: refusing tasks, it will help to prevent her from getting the wrong impression. With how compassionate coworker was, hopefully that’s going to be true of boss as well. I think it will also make OP feel less stressed about work on top of her home situation, fingers crossed.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Agree, I feel so much compassion for OP after reading this letter; she’s obviously trying so hard to be a good employee and handle this all as professionally as possible … it kind of makes me sad that our culture always prioritizes the needs of work and the office over everything else. Hang in there, OP.

    2. L'étrangere*

      If I were in the OP’s situation, I would probably use the story of refusing the extra project as a very natural opening for talking to the direct manager. “Hey boss, this came up last week and I was surprised by my reaction, I thought I should give you a heads up etc”.
      But I think I’d also be a bit more explicit about the nature of the problem. As AAM mentioned, managers and companies are used to dealing with all kinds of human problems, and may have some mechanisms in place to help with the most common. Whether your need is help from HR pushing back on health insurance matters, or a heads up to security about your crazy ex, or simply access to some counseling to deal with this stress, you may well get some concrete help from not keeping up this compartiment fantasy quite so rigorously

  2. Goldenrod*

    This is my current situation too, so Alison’s reply was super helpful! I was wondering the same thing. My partner has an illness with a long recovery time and the stress is making normal life really hard. I have a much harder time concentrating on work, I feel like I’m in a brain fog a lot of the time. It’s really, really hard.

    Hang in there, OP!

    1. Indigo a la mode*

      I’ve been there emotionally, too. The months after I left my husband were awful. I was completely distraught and distracted by my ex’s cycling anger and contrition; I was sleeping poorly; I lost 15 pounds from stress; I was navigating the warring emotions of sadness over breaking up my marriage with the relief and joy of new opportunity. That’s a lot of human-ing while trying to work!

      Even if it’s not divorce or illness, everyone has a similarly stressful experience every now and then. I am so glad I gave my boss a heads-up beforehand, just to let him know I might be struggling a little. He and my coworker respected my privacy, were graceful if I needed to push a deadline or run to court during work hours, and I’m sure were glad they had some context so I didn’t just look like I was losing it. After a few months, the upheaval passed and I resumed my normal self without fanfare. It was really nice to have that combo of grace and nonchalance from the people I saw more than anyone else.

      Everyone’s been there, OP. Your boss will understand. You’re going through a tough time–do anything you can, including talking to your boss, to makes things a little easier right now. You’ll get through it. You’ve got this.

    2. anon for this one*

      I’m also in a similar situation right now, and reading OP’s letter and this comment made me feel much less alone. It is hard, but we’ll get through it. Work can take a backseat to being a person sometimes and that’s okay.

    3. Reluctant Mezzo*

      Been there, done that. I had a wonderful boss who understood that I had to leave for emergencies (oh like an airlift for my husband, fortunately within driving distance for me). Of course I made up work whenever I could, but cluing her in made a huge difference.

  3. WindmillArms*

    One thing I would add is to consider what you want your boss to do. When I had to tell an old boss about a personal crisis that might impact me at work, she was nice about it and willing to accommodate me, but wasn’t sure what I needed…and I wasn’t sure either. I was so anxious about the first part (revealing the crisis) that I didn’t consider what came next! If you have some concrete ideas (Pulling in some “understudies” who could step in for you at the last minute? WFH? Not WFH? Giving that next big task to someone else?), it can be easier for your boss to say yes.

    Basically, think about what you need and want from your boss, and be as specific as you can.

    1. Sloanicota*

      One thing that has made this pandemic so tough is that for a while there, every single employee was going through this kind of personal stress at exactly the same time. Almost everyone I knew was on high alert about a loved one’s health or illness, and/or their own, and/or had their own depression or anxiety spiking due to the isolation and uncertainty, and the disruption to the essentials of life. It was really brutal. There wasn’t going to be much a boss could do when it’s everyone all at once.

      1. QuickerBooks*

        Yes, and at the risk of sounding like a sycophant, I think sometimes people forgot that bosses were people too, going through the same pandemic everyone else was. So it was sometimes hard for them to marshal all the internal, emotional resources needed to deal with these situations when they were just as stressed out as everyone else.

        I don’t mean to be triggering or confrontational here. Just trying to point out everyone’s humanity.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Yup. My supervisor lost her mother, not to covid but during the last two years. She’s a tough cookie, but it does hit everyone hard.

    2. Green great dragon*

      I agree… but it’s also fine not to have anything concrete, and just want boss to know so they have context for your short-term work performance. Or to not have anything immediately but to be having the conversation now so that if you need something in the future you don’t have to explain from the beginning at what might be a very difficult time.

      I’d want to know, if only to reduce the chances of my asking cheerily about whether you have plans for time off. (It always seems rude not to ask. But I do worry about it landing badly.)

      1. anonymous73*

        This. When you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, you don’t always know what you need until you need it. If OP can give the boss the general information of what’s happening, and boss be accommodating for last minute needs to leave/take off/come in late/extend a deadline/pass off work to another/etc. that may be all that can be established right now.

    3. Zephy*

      +1. It’s much easier to keep the conversation focused on work and what you need to do your job rather than just spilling your guts to your boss for no apparent reason. I am also handling a stressful family thing (partner is midway through a long and complex medical situation), but I didn’t bring it up to my boss until I had something actionable to ask for (PTO for the day of partner’s surgery, in my case – approved without hesitation because I got a good boss).

  4. Me!*

    If the company is already trying to expand employee support, I think it will be okay to talk to the boss and let them know (details optional, of course). Life happens and it sounds like they know that. These issues are exactly what such a culture is designed to handle.

    I hope everything works out okay, OP.

  5. Jay*

    I’m sure I will be one voice in the chorus that says “talk to your boss.” I managed a very small team in my last job. One of my reports had to figure out how to support a critically ill relative in another state. She did tell me the specifics because I have some expertise that was helpful, and I kept the info confidential. It would also have been fine if she’d said “an urgent family matter” without going into details. Not only did I support her requests for time off on short-notice, I checked her schedule, realized she was planning to telework from her family member’s bedside, and suggested (STRONGLY) that she change the plan. She did.

    I was emulating my boss. At the beginning of the pandemic I had an unrelated personal crisis. I called him and said “I can’t tell you what’s going on, but over the next few weeks I will be taking time off in the middle of the day kind of randomly.” He said “Do whatever you need to do and let me know how we can support you.” It was a huge relief and made it possible to get through what I devoutly hope was the worst month of my life. Good bosses want to support their teams. Talk to your boss.

    1. Lizzo*

      “Not only did I support her requests for time off on short-notice, I checked her schedule, realized she was planning to telework from her family member’s bedside, and suggested (STRONGLY) that she change the plan. She did.”

      Well done on this–I had a similar situation recently where I needed to tend to family but felt a strong obligation to be available for work. My boss kept insisting that I fully step away from work so I could be present for family, and the only thing she said that got through to me was: “How you handle this sets the tone for the rest of the team. If they see that you’re dividing your attention between work and family, they’ll feel obligated to do the same if they’re in the same situation in the future, when they really should be exclusively focused on family.”

      OP: As a fellow conscientious employee, I understand your worries, but please think about the long game here: what do you need today in order to ensure you can survive whatever’s going on at home, so that you can eventually return to your thriving state as a high-performing employee? Your boss doesn’t need details, but your boss does need to know how to support you.

      Sending you lots of support from afar, as are the rest of the commentariat.

      1. I Wore Pants Today*

        I echo this comment. My unmarried brother died a few months ago (too young), and our parents are both gone. The support from work was amazing, including random time off during hospice care and after his death. Please let your boss know!

  6. KHB*

    If I were your boss, I’d want to know. The boss’s job is to make sure all the work ends up in the hands of people who can do it well. If you’re not realistically able to take on extra projects right now, it’s not doing anybody any favors to keep that a secret.

    A useful concept for situations like this (which I probably first heard from one of the wise commenters here) is the “good will bank.” During “normal” times when you’re performing at your best, you make deposits into the bank by stepping up and helping out (and maybe covering for coworkers who are having a hard time). Then, when you’re having a tough time yourself, you can draw on your account. If your boss and your coworkers are reasonable people (and it sounds from your description like they are), then this is how it’s supposed to work.

    1. KHB*

      I should add: I’m in kind of the same boat as you are right now myself. I’ve got a situation going on in my personal life that’s stealing huge amounts of my mental energy that I’d normally be using to concentrate on work. I’ve told my boss a little bit, but I’m thinking of filling him in on some more of the details at our next one-on-one. Fortunately, it’s something with a finite time horizon that should be over soon, but for right now I’m still having a tough time.

    2. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      I am a manager, and yes, all of this (plus I do care about my team as humans). LW is obviously a conscientious employee and any decent manager should want to accommodate her.

    3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Same. I don’t need the details, but I need to know what you need from me, whether that’s schedule flexibility, a temporary moratorium on requests outside your normal day-to-day, the info for the folks who handle our FMLA program, or something else.

    4. Green Goose*

      I’m a manager too and I’d also like to know. I also think if the OP knows what they need, like Fridays off that’s a specific action the manager can take to support in addition to “no more optional projects”.

      Hope everything works out okay OP!

  7. LaFramboise*

    I’m sorry, LW, for whatever it is that you’re going through. I sympathize–we’ve had a tough time at home in the past year and I didn’t want to bring it to work. And Allison is so right, you do get to be human, with human problems, and have a limit to what you can do. If it helps, I do think that it’s ok to not commit your full self to work when you have personal issues and re-visit more tasks at work when you’re feeling up for it–is it ok to give yourself permission to do that?

    In the meantime, if I were your boss, I’d want to know that you can commit to your duties and say that you have some personal things going on that are taking up a lot of energy so that you don’t want to take on more tasks right now. I wouldn’t need to know the situation, but I would need to know if you needed time off, emergency or otherwise, and what I would have to cover (either myself or someone in the office) and if there was documentation for any tasks that I’d need to know.

    Best wishes on everything and know that this internet stranger is thinking of you.

  8. Fabulous*

    Hugs to OP. If this is going to be an ongoing issue, I’d definitely bring it up to your boss to cover your bases. Alison’s script is perfect. I had some personal stuff happen last year that really affected my work output in a similar way and I did not talk to my boss about it. While it seemed fine on the surface, I really struggled for quite a while, while things settled down at home. I think I would have felt a lot more supported and seen if she had known I was having some issues.

  9. Jennifer Strange*

    OP, I’ve been dealing with a health issue for about 5 months now that has caused me to miss some work/not be as on top of things as I usually have been. What’s really helped is just being open with my boss about it so that we can have a plan in place for when I have a flare up. It sounds like what you’re going through isn’t a physical health issue, but it does sound like it’s affecting your mental and/or emotional health to some degree, and don’t forgot those are important too! Treat talking with your boss about this the same way you would if this were a medical issue. You can disclose as much or as little as you’d like. It sounds like you don’t have any idea of when this issue will be resolved, but if you can give a ballpark estimate or anything that would be good to know. Please don’t assume that because this is a personal issue you’re not allowed to let it have any effect on you. We’re not robots!

  10. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    I had a similar situation about a year ago. It was shortly after I got a new boss and didn’t have a read on them yet.

    Telling my boss in loose terms what was going on ended up being the best thing, once I had put it out there to my boss and also to a couple of people on my team, I no longer felt worried about putting up a front.

    What a relief! I had not realized that I had so much stress added on to my stress about how it would affect my work. Once I had put out the information that I had something going on that might require me to leave early or take off a day with little or no notice, that piece of stress vanished. I actually had much less difficulty concentrating on work and my performance returned to near normal just by telling what was going on.

    1. The Real Persephone Mongoose*

      Yeah, it’s starting as vague and high level as you can. That helped me as well. The stress is unbelievable and just having a high level discussion helps so much.

  11. The Real Persephone Mongoose*

    I had this happen to me when I was going through a divorce several years ago. My soon to be ex was stalking me both physically and electronically, he was harassing family members and friends including trying to get a family member and the husband of a friend fired from their jobs, and trying to involve my primary care physician. I had to get a restraining order and then report multiple violations. It was a very emotional and difficult time for me. I gave my boss a skeleton update about what was going on and he was very helpful. I had to tell our facilities people some of same information although high level (stalker/restraining order) so they could take necessary steps to ensure my safety at work including changing my direct line number and masking the new one so he couldn’t get through to me directly or through the operator. So start with general information: you are going through a difficult personal issue, right now it’s not impacting your job but you are afraid it might bleed into it, things they can do to help are x,y, and z. Good luck to you. I know you want to keep the wall between your home life and work life but you are not an automaton. You are human and human lives are messy sometimes. Disclose the bare minimum and work with your boss and HR to get whatever accommodations you need to function and come through this with skin and sanity intact.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Thanks. I came to make sure this was covered. If there’s safety issues, there are straightforward steps employers can take to make work a more comfortable space to be.

  12. Womanaroundtown*

    Oh, OP, I really hope you’re okay. I am in a similar situation (obviously don’t know what’s going on when you exactly, but I am dealing with a familial situation that is causing extreme anxiety and difficulties in concentrating), and it’s rough. I have a very (too) congenial relationship with my boss, so she has some idea of it, which has been a huge relief, and I hope you can talk to your boss as well.

  13. Bookworm*

    OP, I don’t have any advice and defer to the more knowledgeable and experienced but did want to send you good thoughts and hope your situation (both personal and professional) improve/turn out okay. Wishing you the best.

  14. animaniactoo*

    Tell me what you think it will look like in terms of your ability to be at work and functional if things go sideways. Tell me how likely you think it is. Tell me what you could use from me for support. Tell me, if possible, the broad strokes of the situation so I have the best shot of being able to offer you options that you may not think of that could be useful for you. If it’s not possible to tell me that much, it’s okay. Just keep me updated for whatever seems reasonable as a time frame given how things are going. Tell me when it’s as stable as it’s going to get.

    I don’t really have limits on what I don’t want to know about. But this is what would be useful to me in trying to support someone else as far as workplace stuff goes.

    1. Hanani*

      I agree with all of this. I work with students, so some of the situations are different, but I always emphasize that I need to know what we’re doing in terms of the class. I don’t need to know the specifics of their personal business if they don’t want to share it. “I’m dealing with some family issues, I may need to be gone on short notice and have to push back some deadlines for the next month” is what I want to know. I’m certainly willing to be a listening ear and/or a referral to another support system for “This is specifically what’s going on”, because I care about them as people and want them to be well, but it’s not necessary.

  15. Been there*

    I hope that LW is ok and their boss is able to be supportive. I am glad that her co-worker supportive. This is a difficult situation for everyone involved. I experienced something similar with an employee I supervised. It was clear that “something” was wrong, but they did their best to try to hide it until one day I got a text from them saying that they had to call the police on their live-in partner the previous night and needed the day off to bail them out of jail and try to get some sleep. It was horrible. I feel that as the boss, I should have taken some steps sooner to try to help since something was clearly off; when they finally opened up to me, the employee said they didn’t want to “burden” me because it was COVID and everyone was stressed about everything. I wish they had told me about their issues sooner, mainly because I cared about them as a person and wanted to help if I could. From a business standpoint, it would have helped to know that it wasn’t just them slacking off because they were working from home or they didn’t care about their job; if your boss doesn’t know something is going on, we can’t help. Best of luck to LW.

  16. SpringIsForPlanting!*

    I wonder if this is something an EAP (employee assistance program) could help with if your company offers it. I’ve never tried them, but I remember Alison doing a really interesting interview a while ago with an EAP specialist and it seemed like the kind of thing where they could talk through ways to approach the manager and maybe also point to other resources as appropriate.

  17. Canadian for what it's worth*

    You’ve understandbly kept the details vague, and so this may or may not apply to you BUT two things stuck out at me.
    You said you went to you car to make the call to your coworker. Do you work at home? The other thing is reading it a certain way, this could be a case of domestic violence. If both those things are true then this is definitely a workplace issue. My Canadian employer has been VERY explicit that when your workplace is your home and you are experiencing domestic violence, this is a case of *workplace violence*. Amendments to the Canada Labour Code came into effect on January 1, 2021. This law requires all federally regulated employers to have a documented response to workplace harassment and violence, including domestic violence

    Depending on your location, this could be true for you as well. And if it is that open up other workplace supports you can access that your boss can help you navigate.

    Whatever it is you’re dealing with OP, I hope it can be peacefully resolved soon!

    1. Sloanicota*

      It is extra hard right now that, in situations where work might have previously been an escape from issues at home (such as a difficult divorce, even without any element of domestic violence) there is now no getting away from them. There are situations where it makes things easier not to be commuting or away from home, and some where it makes it harder.

    2. 1-800BrownCow*

      I read the OP having to go to their car was because they either didn’t have a private place inside the office to make the phone call OR they were nervous how they might react during the call, like their emotions might overwhelm and they didn’t want others around to see or hear them. In my office building, I sometimes make very private phone calls from my car because I share a space with 2 other people and we’re limited on conference room space, so we’re not supposed to tie up space that may be needed for work-related things. And while there are a few areas I could go for less distraction, there’s always a chance someone may interrupt anything your trying to handle in private. It’s just easier to go to one’s car, which I know other people who do the same thing.

    3. LW*

      LW here – yes, I do work from home, which was definitely a factor in my stress levels! To clarify, it was not an issue of domestic violence. (Also, I’m in the United States, for what it’s worth.) This is good information to have out there, though, for anyone it might apply to.

  18. ThisIsTheHill*

    I’m just coming out of a few months of chaos – parents health quickly declining, brother (parents’ caretaker) passing away unexpectedly, blindsided by a mental health diagnosis – all while working on a mission critical project. I didn’t go into a ton of details, as I’m a remote worker so it was less apparent externally than if I had to be in the office every day, but I gave my boss a high-level overview. I told her that I might have some blocked off time for phone calls, & that I needed some backup on the project because I had no idea what my bandwidth would be compared to normal. Boss & Grandboss have been extremely supportive throughout.

    As others have said, plot out what *you* need from management & make that ask. As my boss said to me, give yourself some grace. I’m pulling for you!

  19. EJane*

    As long as you are confident that your boss won’t use this information against you (have to throw that out there just in case), absolutely tell your boss.
    I had a client in a similar situation, and I’ll tell you what I told them:
    I want to remind you that it’s not your fault [which i can say to you with confidence based on the fact that it sounds like you don’t know how this will unfold; if you were responsible, you’d have more control over the course of events] and that you aren’t morally obligated in any way to balance all of your obligations perfectly when something like this upsets your entire ecosystem.
    You struggling right now doesn’t diminish your value as an employee or as a person. You are [sound like, from your letter] a very conscientious person, a hard worker, and someone who tries hard to keep good boundaries. Acknowledging to your boss that you’re working through something difficult won’t sound like you’re being dramatic or a cop-out. It’s the right move.

    Alison’s script is excellent. For variety, here’s the script I’ve personally used with my boss, who is pretty emotionally intelligent and has no interest in hearing anything I’m not willing to share, and is also excellent at providing what I need when I ask for it:

    “I wanted to let you know that I’m dealing with some stuff in my personal life that’s taking up a lot of my emotional bandwidth. I’m still very invested in my job and that won’t change, but I’m short on resources right now and will be for a bit. I wanted to loop you in so you have context if I seem a little off, and I’ll keep you posted as I figure out what I specifically need when it comes to work.”

    I work in a fairly informal workplace, so edit as you see fit.

  20. higeredadmin*

    LW, looking at this question from another angle for you. I had an employee with multiple personal issues (back problems + other personal health issues, disabled child that needed additional care + all the issues that come with getting schools to follow IEPs, very recently single, unwell parent who lived nearby). I really tried to accommodate this employee as much as possible, but over time it turned into total chaos as the employee stopped responding to almost anything. Never showing up to meetings, not coming in on days that they were supposed to, not being contactable on wfh days, and most importantly consistently missing deadlines that they agreed to and swore up to the day it was due that they were going to be able to deliver. They were eventually terminated, and I work in higher ed so you know it was a hot mess. What I’m saying is – be clear in asking for accommodations, and once you open that door understand that you have to continue to communicate. You can’t just go off-grid for a day and then act like nothing happened – you need to let you boss know if there is an emergency that changes that day’s plans, and have a contingency in place to ensure your work is getting done. You are very smart to not take more work on your plate, but you need to be proactive with your boss on how what you have to do gets done in the midst of chaos.

    1. aubrey*

      My company had a similar situation, and the person was also terminated, but not because of having problems at home or needing accommodations – it was because they promised and promised they could deliver essential things (which someone else could have done if they could not! they just kept insisting they could!) and then completely dropped off the grid when it was too late for us to have any other options for handling these tasks. They did this multiple times until they vanished so completely we weren’t sure if they were even okay. Communicate early and allow for contingencies would be my advice to OP – help your company help you.

    2. SweetestCin*

      Reiterating “be clear in accommodations, and always communicate”. The past three years have been a pile of “you would not believe me if I told you, no, seriously, if this were in a novel the publisher would reject it as being completely impossible and over the top” with the pandemic just being the cherry on top. I’ve had no choice, really, other than making sure my boss has been aware of what is going on, at some level that is appropriate at work. Always ask, always communicate, and always have plans A/B/C. Sometimes I’ve had employer-assistance in figuring out plans D and E beyond that, but it always gets handled.

  21. Renovickie*

    Echoing the chorus of “Tell your boss.”

    Last November I worked a rare Saturday with my team and boss. By Monday, I had suddenly left my home and husband and really had no idea what the rest of my life was going to look like.

    Monday morning, I will walked in the door and immediately told my boss, who was kind and understanding. Because the situation involves my daughter (almost 18), therapy for both of us and a criminal case against her father (believe your kids), it is likely to drone on for a year or more. I have continued to keep my boss apprised of the situation and have asked for nothing more than flexibility and grace while I navigate this turbulent personal situation.

    My boss and employer have been more than accommodating, allowing WFH on therapy days and understanding when I just can’t manage to get much accomplished. In turn, I have shown up and worked at the same level I did before my life completely fell apart. Having the normalcy of working regularly actually helped me, and my boss noted in my annual review that I continue to be great at my job despite my personal struggles.

    Tell them. It may end up helping you in the long run.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Jedi hugs, Renovickie. Wishing all the best for you and your daughter.

  22. Tib*

    OP, when you think about it, positive things at home affect your work too. Maybe you’re extra cheerful because you have leftover pie in your lunch, or you got a good night’s sleep. You have the energy and the determination to tackle your current work monster. Or you really don’t so you’re focusing on the mindless stuff that still has to get done. And I don’t know what you can do with this idea except hold it and know that no one compartmentalizes completely. Your office has gotten the benefit of that and it’s OK for you to ask for flexibility in dealing with the negative stuff. And maybe if you’ve never seen anyone else dealing with a large personal problem at work it’s because your workplace has helped them keep it manageable.

    I also wonder if it would help to create a code for your situation. Give it a project name. Or refer to how things are going at home with a 10 point scale. Whatever works for you. I think that could help you distance yourself and your workplace from the details but still communicate that you’re struggling or will need help.

  23. sunny*

    As someone with multiple chronic illnesses that ebb and flow I have found it helpful to clue my boss in. They have been able to offer accommodations and/or solutions to things I didn’t even know existed (extra PTO, flexible wfh (pre-pandemic), etc.). Additionally, it removes my worry of “do they think I’m terrible at my job?!”

  24. anonymous73*

    I am a very private person as well, and generally don’t open up to new people until I’m almost certain they can be trusted. But you don’t want this to reflect negatively on the impression of your work if your boss doesn’t have the information about your struggles. You don’t have to get super detailed, but provide enough information to allow them to understand why you may not be 100% at work right now.

  25. Doctors Whom*

    Chiming in to agree vehemently with others. I have been both the manager and the employee in situations like this.

    As a manager, I don’t need all the details. But I do appreciate knowing how you think I can best support you. Sometimes that’s “I’m going to need the flexibility to leave for medical appointments on short notice,” sometimes it’s “I need to go to X state and work remotely,” sometimes it’s “I appreciate that you think of me for special projects, but this year I need to not take on stretch assignments,” sometimes it’s “I need to not travel for work for the foreseeable future” and sometimes it’s “Please just understand that I really love this job and I am going to work hard, but my performance might not be what you are used to.”

    As a manager, I do try to assess what I know and may ask “Are you safe? Or do you have any reason to believe you might not be?” those are rare, but that is the only time I will probe. I always make clear that if what they need from me changes, I will work with them. I also have been able to make our team members aware of certain benefits we offer that they may not think about all the time, but that are designed to help employees in difficult situations.

    Your work self and your home self are not completely separate Severance-style entities. Of course if one of them is in crisis it is going to affect the other one and it is ok to reach out to your boss to try to reset some expectations to ease up on the work throttle while the personal one is floored.

    Good luck LW. I hope that you are able to give yourself grace and that the situations you are struggling with can resolve in a way that gives you peace.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Well said. I managed for over 30 years. It is painful to have to sit down with a good, reliable employee and start asking, “This isn’t like you. What’s going on?”

      I’ve been on both sides of this. LW, please tell your manager. You needn’t go into a lot of details, but please give your manager at least some info, plus any specific accommodations you may need. Time off for medical appointments, no new projects for a while, whatever you think would help relieve the pressure you’re under.

      Good luck and here’s to a happier future for you.

  26. turquoisecow*

    One thing that I don’t see mentioned is a timeline of how long the stressful period is supposed to last. Boss might appreciate knowing that this is a temporary situation, not an ongoing thing, that you may need to put down certain tasks that you normally do, or not take on new things, but this is only temporary. Because honestly if my coworker said to me (since I’m not a manager), “I’m going through a tough time right now, I can’t handle the Jenkins report, can you do it?” I would wonder if this is a permanent change. Am I expected to take on some of their tasks permanently? For a few weeks? Months? Boss might appreciate something where you say (or maybe they’ll say themselves), “let’s revisit in (time period) and see how things are going.”

    Obviously you might not know how the situation will shake out and when you might return to normal, but some assurances that it’s definitely temporary will go a long way, and any estimate on an end date will probably make your coworkers/boss feel better. (Even saying something is an improvement over just letting people think you’re slacking.)

  27. kiki*

    I went through something similar– my home situation was taking a lot more out of me than I thought it should. I tried really hard to cover it up by pushing myself extra hard (I didn’t want to “fail” at home AND at work), but I broke down. I was really surprised by how caring and compassionate my manager and higher ups were once I told them. I regret not being more honest and straight-forward the whole time so I could have prevented my break down. Good managers know employees will have times they’re not their best. Knowing upfront when those periods are means they can delegate work away from you to keep things running until you’re ready. It also means they can adjust commitments accordingly.

  28. LW*

    The timing on this letter is kind of funny! I did end up talking to my boss (and HR—our rep possibly coincidentally reached out to ask me a work question a day or so after I spoke to the sympathetic coworker, and when I answered “not great” to the question “how are you”, asked if I wanted to talk to her, which seemed like a good idea). I approached it pretty much the way you recommended, and they were very supportive, asked me what I needed, checked to make sure that I wasn’t feeling physically unsafe, plus HR pointed me at the company EAP if I wanted additional mental health support. Not only was my boss okay with not giving me new duties for a bit, they took a couple of things off my plate temporarily, too. I’ve been reading AAM for years, so I think I already knew what the answer was going to be—but rubber-ducking the question in the form of a letter helped me sort out my own baggage and arrive at “yes, I should talk to my boss and this is the best approach”.

    The reason I say the timing is funny is because the source of the domestic drama is moving out tomorrow! It has not been a fun couple of months, but the end is very much in sight. (Now I can just stress about the mortgage application process, as part of the resolution to all this was me buying my house from my landlord. More big, distracting life stuff, but hey, at least I’ll be getting a proper home office out of it!)

    1. Doctors Whom*

      I’m so glad for you that you have a great management & HR team supporting you, and that the source of your domestic drama will soon be moving on!

    2. aubrey*

      I’m so glad to read this update, LW! Hope everything goes as smoothly as it can.

    3. animaniactoo*

      Yay! Congrats, and I hope the mortgage goes smoothly for you. *fingers crossed* (for luck).

    4. MEH Squared*

      Congrats, LW! I’m glad that things worked out for you and that your boss was so supportive.

  29. Irish Teacher*

    I think your response that you didn’t want to take it on at the moment in case things deteriorated at home was perfect. It doesn’t sound at all like you might flake out on it. Having a genuine crisis and having to take time off to deal with it is not “flaking out”. Flaking out is just not bothering.

    This seems way more like when I was awaiting a date for an operation and was reluctant to take on certain project at work.

    I think if you can trust your boss, then it’s generally better to let them know. I don’t think it needs to be a big deal, just something like “my husband and I are separating and I wanted to let you know as I might need some time off to finalise the details” or “my child is having medical tests and I might need time off at short notice if she turns out to have a serious diagnosis” or whatever the situation is.

    I’m not a boss but I will add that before that operation, I let both my principal and the head of my department know the situation and they were both extremely supportive. The head of department made a point of asking how I would like her to support me. I think if I were a boss, I would like to know mostly what accommodations you might need. Say it is a case of your child being ill. I don’t need to know what illness it is, though I wouldn’t mind if you told me or any of the details, just that you have an ill child who will naturally be your priority and that might mean you cannot take on extra projects/need to finish early some days/whatever your needs are. A colleague of mine said that she went to our principal saying that she was having difficulty with childcare and needed to work less hours and the principal basically said, “let you know what you need and so long as it’s allowed by the Department, we’ll make it work.” It would also be fine if you didn’t know exactly what you needed yet and just gave an outline.

    Again, I am not a boss, so am speaking hypothetically.

    1. LolaBugg*

      I’m actually currently dealing with that right now, I’m waiting on some testing and a possible diagnosis that may affect my work going forward, but with my insurance the whole process is taking way longer than I would have liked. While not getting into the nitty-gritty personal details when I speak to my boss, I have kept him in the general loop so it’s not a total surprise to him if I do end up needing some time off for treatment soon. I think open communication is important.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        Best of luck with the results of your tests. I hope you get the best possible news.

        I didn’t actually tell my boss until I had a diagnosis but that was because I sort of drew the short straw and really didn’t expect the news I got. The doctors had been like “oh, it’s probably nothing. We just have to rule out anything serious…oh, you are one of the 5% who gets bad news.” It wasn’t super-bad, but it was still worse than I expected.

        1. LolaBugg*

          Thanks! It’s so hard to navigate work-life balance when “life” is getting turned upside down.

  30. EdgarAllanCat*

    Been in the same situation, too, and spoke to my boss about it. It was more like word-vomit than talking because the workplace was more relaxing than home. In the past 1.5 years (under new leadership), we all built up & dipped into the goodwill bucket. Most of us have been able to rely on each other during the dark times, which is really nice.

  31. LolaBugg*

    You have my sympathy, OP. It can be very difficult (and some days can feel almost impossible) to show up physically and mentally at work while things in your life are imploding. I’ve been there. Echoing the other commenters who say it’s good to keep your boss in the loop. If you end up needing to take emergency time off, it will work in your favor if your boss is already aware that you’ve got an ongoing rough situation happening. Hang in there!

  32. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I have gone to my boss before when personal situations are or might impact my work. I have a wonderful boss who was very understanding, helped me put safety plans in place at work, etc. I hope you have the same experience, OP.

    Please prioritize yourself through this time – I hope you are ok.

  33. Denise*

    I’ve been in your shoes and I just wanted to underline the “You don’t have to give details” part of her response. I had a similar discussion with my then-supervisor when I had a domestic issue about 15 years ago, and I wish I hadn’t provided a lot of details. My former supervisor is now working their way into the C-suite, and I know the details I’ve divulged about my history is impacting how he thinks of me and can potentially impact the rest of my career at this company. Don’t let this happen to you.

  34. Lady K*

    As a manager, I would want my team members come to me on stuff like this. I don’t need details unless they want to share or if there is a potential for violence. I’ve had to deal with team members who have had DV issues and restraining orders, from sick kids/spouse/family to divorce and death. As much as I can as a manager, I will help get their work covered and point them to FMLA, EAP resources, etc.

  35. GythaOgden*

    My colleagues were in the loop from day one of the illness that killed my husband. There were a few hiccups along the way — times when the stress got too public — but the number one priority for my boss and supervisor was absolute loyalty and receptiveness as to what I needed and why. That continued during the years afterwards.

    I literally couldn’t have done it without them.

    Tell them.

  36. Just @ me next time*

    I’ve been there, LW. My partner has severe depression and goes through periodic episodes of wanting to end his life. It was so terrifying to go to my boss the first time to talk about what was going on. But in the end, it was the right choice to mention it. My boss was super understanding and I felt much better knowing that I had the space to take care of myself and my partner without career repercussions. Not sure precisely what you’re going through, but your boss may also be able to point you to resources like an employee assistance program or leave options.
    You are not alone in this!

    1. kicking_k*

      Sending hugs and fellow-feeling – my OH is in the same situation as yours. The first time I tell a boss is always very weird, but I’ve never regretted that I did.

      Realistically, this is always going to be an issue that I will need a plan for…

  37. This Old House*

    How would this advice change if it’s not necessarily a short-term situation? e.g. a parent with a kid who requires significant resources, an adult child taking care of a parent who is ailing but will probably live for many more years, etc? While those seem like situations that would call for grace in the workplace, I can imagine only so much grace is sustainable long term?

    1. Kevin Sours*

      When you get to the point where something is visibly impacting your worth you are almost always going to be better off providing context for it. At least if the issue is vaguely sympathetic.

    2. 1,000 Snails in a Lady Skin*

      At that point it would likely be a conversation about how can we change their role. (Disclosure, I’ve had this convo with reports.)
      For example: Do they need an unpaid sabbatical or disability leave? Should they go part-time? Can we take growth projects off their plate and give them more execution or operational tasks?

  38. NoRealNameHere*

    I have so much compassion for you! I recently dealt with a family situation (different flavor – family illness/death) and talked more about it at work than I probably normally would have, but it was so helpful when stuff popped up unexpectedly or when I might have seemed distracted. So I’m glad you made the decision to talk about it. All the best to you.

  39. Manager of Sharks*

    I would also urge fellow managers to be proactive in these situations by offering solutions. Sometimes, people don’t know (or are afraid) to ask, so giving examples of how we can support our team helps provide clarity.

    Some examples I have provided in the past:

    – When approached about having medical issues that would take them out of work frequently, giving carte blanche approval for them to flex their time and just notify me of the changes so I was aware (or use sick time, but they were mostly for scheduled, planned appointments).
    – Work on X type of project that was a lower-stress project than Y

    I let them know these are examples of things we have been able to implement in the past and to think about what works best for them. And then, in the subsequent 1:1s, a simple check-in: are these changes still working for you? Anything we need to modify so you’re supported?

  40. TootsNYC*

    When my colleague was going through a divorce, the HR folks at our company suggested she see a therapist and have that person fill out the forms for her to get a flexible FMLA leave set up.

  41. Dasein9*

    Good luck, LW.

    When I was getting divorced, it helped for my boss to know what was happening. She saw my ex’s very distinctive truck in the parking lot one day and warned me, in fact.

    If you’re a bit distracted, which is perfectly understandable, it’s much better for your boss to have some context for why, even if they don’t have all the details.

  42. hayling*

    When my ex-husband and I decided to divorce, I told my boss, and she was super understanding that I was not my best at work. The 2 weeks between when we decided to split and when I actually moved out was excruciatingly stressful, so I was glad my team knew what was going on. I mostly held it together at work but there was one morning where I was kindof a mess and I must have snapped at someone in a meeting. My boss gently took me aside after and suggested I WFH the rest of the day and the rest of the week if I wanted to. In retrospect I am so glad she had that context so she knew that this was out of character for me.

  43. Nina*

    When I was getting credible death threats from an estranged member of my family who had managed to get both my home and work addresses, and I was understandably both underwhelmed by the reaction of the police (‘block his calls and call us if he shows up’ gee thanks) and overwhelmed by the total lack of support I was getting from the rest of my family (‘he doesn’t mean it he’s just drunk’ gee thanks), my boss was great.

    – asked if I was safe and if there was anything the company could do to make me safer (I live and work in two different secure compounds, and just asked to be able to leave in daylight at the same time as a colleague so I wouldn’t have to get out of my car to lock the external gate)
    – pointed me to the company EAP
    – let HR know so I wouldn’t have to have the same conversation twice, and offered to help me with the paperwork to get domestic violence leave
    – passed off a couple of tasks that are difficult and attention-consuming but not specialized to other workers until everything got sorted out

  44. Zipzap*

    I agree talking to your boss AND thinking about what you need are good ideas. I was goung through a hard family time where I was traveling every weekend to help my injured mom, and I really wish I’d said something to my manager. It might have prevented me from trying to do too much and having my work suffer as a result. I did need help and I didn’t ask for it.

  45. Summer Day*

    Hey OP, I hope you’re feeling the love!! Take care of yourself. I’ve got a heap going on at home at the moment and had to tell my boss (I emailed actually because it was easier for me). I think it might be MORE professional to say something. You’re identifying something that may affect your work. You’re telling someone that it may affect and resetting expectations for a short time. Unless you’re a robot these things will happen and a good workplace will be able to manage it and be supportive. For me my boss has been really understanding that my productivity is a bit down and has made sure no extra stuff ends up on my plate and has given me a few “must do’s”-tell me if this falls behind but otherwise she trusts me to be doing my best. It felt really good to lower my expectations of myself for a while. It won’t be forever but everyone has these times. Xxxx

  46. Joanna*

    OP, yes, please talk to your boss. A few years ago, my parents started to have very serious health problems that necessitated me just packing up and leaving the several times. My boss at the time was a huge jerk. Huge. But I did talk to him about what was going on and letting him know that I might have to leave on short notice anytime. I wanted to make sure he knew what was going on just so he wouldn’t be caught off guard and wouldn’t be a huge jerk about it. Turns out it was the right thing to do, and it made things go a lot smoother when things did get bad. Turns out he’s a narcissist who really loved his parents, so he was actually even able to dig up some empathy.

    My dad ended up receiving hospice care for 6 months, and it was really hard and it was nice to know that my boss understood why I was being a little flakey at times, and spared me a bunch of his BS.

  47. Sauron*

    Hi OP, just wanted to join the commenters here and express sympathy in what you’re going through. I have had similar issues over the years – health stuff, shitty boyfriend stuff, etc, so I know how hard it can be to keep your head above water at work when work is the last thing you have the capacity to think about. I hope your boss is supportive and that this situation resolves soon.

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