how do I care about work when my life is falling apart … and other mental health questions

I’ve long been a fan of the work of clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, the best-selling author of Detox Your Thoughts and regular contributor to CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Her new podcast, Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, launches today.

Andrea agreed to stop by and help answers some letters. (She did two on her own and we tackled the last one jointly.) Here we go…

1. How can I support my partner after his job loss?

My partner lost his job in May. He had been employed by one of the companies that had very public large-scale layoffs in the spring. Unfortunately, here we are in months later and his job search is still ongoing. He’s formed an LLC and is doing outreach for consulting services, filed for unemployment benefits, and is doing odd jobs to bring in some extra funds. He received one offer that was a substantial pay cut from what he had been earning, so he turned it down. He’s generated some interest in his resume and had a number of interviews. But each subsequent rejection seems to affect him more and more, regardless of the specific job or what stage of the process he got to. I’m at a loss for how to support him. I’ve tried to be a sympathetic ear, offer suggestions on things like places to apply/tweaking answers to common interview questions/etc, ask him outright what I can do, but I feel like it falls on deaf ears. Do you have any advice?

Andrea: I am truly sorry to hear this. The struggle of sudden job loss can be totally destabilizing, not just for the person who lost the job, but also for those who love them. And so my first concern is to make sure that you’re keeping an eye on your own mental health as well. It’s very easy to get pulled under when supporting someone else through challenging times, and the more preoccupied you are with the helplessness of your partner’s situation, the harder it is to remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to your own needs. You deserve support, too!

Now, communication is important in every relationship, but you are at a crossroads where it’s more crucial than ever, because without functional communication you risk increasing disconnection, which won’t help either of you get through this time. With that in mind, it strikes me that he might have a lot to say about what he needs, and what he doesn’t. No two partners are alike in terms of how they may best feel supported during a job search. Some might want line-by-line editing of their cover letter, whereas others just want their partner to assist in the mental escape of snuggling up with a documentary about the Donkey Kong World Championship. What has he said about what might help him feel best? If you haven’t yet asked, that should be next on your list.

If he’s still a pretty closed book, you might “notice out loud”—in a caring and nonjudgmental way—that things seem to be getting more stressful for him, rather than less. It’s not an accusation but rather just a gentle observation from someone who loves him, as an invitation to further discussion– if he is willing. If that’s the case, then you could point out that he seems to be getting closer and closer to finding a job by all measures, and yet he seems to be getting more discouraged. Sometimes just a simple pep talk can cause a perspective shift: like the fact that every step forward, even the ones that don’t seem to pay off immediately, still gets him closer to an eventual offer.

But I also think it’s important that we redefine expectations here. Just like you cannot directly fix this for him – you’re not a hiring manager– you also shouldn’t underestimate the day-to-day impact of what you’ve been doing already, simply in your role as a partner. Often it really is the little things like the brief moments of physical affection, the encouraging texts, the small kindnesses, or the shared laughs that provide the most meaningful support in frustrating, uncertain times. The underlying foundation of your relationship– the care, empathy, and love you show right now– is even more important than any specifics you might have to offer as an advisor or strategist. In fact, that might be why your advice feels like it is falling on deaf ears. Perhaps your role is getting too confusing, and he’ll get more from you as partner than career coach. After all, he’s already taking a lot of the steps he’s supposed to, to find the next job.

Now, by all means, if you feel that he is going about this search in a fundamentally dysfunctional way, like self-sabotaging or selling himself short, then you can gently let him know (though you can’t “fix” that if he doesn’t want to heed it). Similarly, if you are carrying feelings of resentment, it’s important that you be honest with yourself and reckon with how those might be affecting your behavior. The more insight you have into your own feelings, the easier it is to not let them cloud your actions as you decide how to best be there for him. But you also are being there for him in many ways already—and that might mean far more than you realize.

Read an update to this letter

2. How do I care about work when my personal life is falling apart?

I have been at my company for a very long time (18 years) and am in senior management. My marriage is falling apart right now, and I just cannot bring myself to care about work. Or rather, sometimes it is a welcome distraction, but in general I just don’t have any energy or investment in doing more than the basics. I feel bad when people bring me exciting new ideas for the future, and my internal response is completely dismissive/exhausted. I am sure that at some point I’ll get less miserable, and presumably will be able to re-engage with work goals and enthusiasm at that point, but what advice do you have for me about how to weather this tough period right now?

Andrea: My heart goes out to you for what’s happening in your marriage. And also for how tough you seem to be on yourself—which only makes tough periods tougher.

People tend to think of work-life balance as some optimal, constant equilibrium that pays significant attention to both work and life at any given period. In truth, work-life balance is better looked at over the course of the long-term. It involves the willingness to understand that sometimes, life needs to take precedence whether we want it to or not, and balance simply can’t be found that month—or group of months– at all. In the grand scheme of things, it can eventually even out, and there’ll be plenty of times when you can hit the gas on the job again.
So, weathering this tough period begins with forgiving yourself for not being the optimal worker for a while. I promise you: that is okay. You are a whole person who needs to attend to a major part of your life right now that simply doesn’t involve memos or meetings. You’ve devoted nearly two decades of your life to this company, and given that you are in senior management, you’ve likely excelled in a lot of ways, rewarding your organization with quite a lot of value. But the fact that you’ve excelled in the past shouldn’t punish you now, nor does it disqualify you from being human. Work is only part of who you are, and sometimes the basics are enough. There are times in life when “productivity” consists of making sure that you get up in the morning and take care of your emotional and physical health, and simply check enough boxes to keep from getting fired (yup, I said it).

So, autopilot was made for situations like this. What are the must-do’s each day? Maybe make one list for the morning and one list for the afternoon. Have an additional running list of things that aren’t priorities but might be tackled if you have a bit more energy or are up for more distraction any given day. Develop scripts that help you go through the motions with less effort—like conveying enthusiasm for a good idea while also implying that now is not the time for a full deep dive, or gracefully ending interminably useless meetings that are going fifteen minutes over when you really need some deep breathing and relaxing music instead. And when you do feel a professional spark here and there, notice it and follow it, doing more of whatever that thing is, and less of what feels excruciating.

The truth is, we all have finite amounts of emotional energy; it’s simple math. If you were to burn yourself out giving too much to work right now, that would only set you up to do even lower-quality work in the future. Your energy should go to nourishing yourself as you endure what is happening at home and get on a path to healing (whatever that may look like). Forgive me, but there’s a sports metaphor here somewhere: think of yourself as a valuable athlete on the team, but one who has suffered a mild injury. You can still go to practice, attend team meetings, and keep your roster spot. But you shouldn’t be forcing yourself to play at your usual intensity, or you’ll just hurt yourself further. And in the long run, that would hurt your team even more as well.

3. My employee doesn’t regulate her reactions at work

I have an employee who has struggled for the entire time she’s been employed at our organization (about a year; I did not hire her but took over managing the team about three months into her tenure).

Her work usually meets expectations but she’s had some misses. When she does, I spend 10 times as long dealing with her reaction to the mistake than actually helping her fix the mistake. She says she struggles with anxiety and imposter syndrome. It results in defensiveness, excuses, arguments, and lack of accountability over even small errors.

We had the “come-to-Jesus” talk recently about how this cannot continue and she must learn better coping methods. She’s admitted she is creating these issues and needs to change, but doesn’t know how and is terrified she can’t handle it. I want to see her succeed but I think it’s out of my hands at this point. How can I deal with an employee who wants to improve but maybe just … can’t? 

Alison: Andrea, I’m interested in hearing your take on this! Generally my advice would be that the manager should name what she’s seeing, explain the impact, name what she needs to see instead, and then hold the employee to that like she would any other expectation. But it sounds like she’s started that process and the employee agrees that it’s a problem and wants to change but doesn’t know how to do that. That’s different from someone who just stays defensive and argumentative when you raise the issue. But this also seems like an issue that’s probably bigger than what the manager can solve. What’s your take?

Andrea: I totally agree that this seems to be a scenario where the usual course of action – which seems so beautifully functional when you spell it out like that, Alison! – may come up short. Because the question becomes, is this employee actually capable of change? Many employees who suffer from imposter syndrome and anxiety bend over backwards to fix mistakes and put themselves under hyper-surveillance about their performance – they often apologize too much, so this is an interesting twist that your employee refuses accountability and gets defensive and argumentative. But that’s also a common anxiety response and she is sabotaging herself all the same, so it’s clearly a deep-seated issue.

Now, of course, you can’t be her therapist, but I do wonder what would happen if you got really specific in the moment to help illuminate how she’s falling into that cycle, but also offering an alternative path. So, the next time you are in the throes of one of these overreactions, trying to calmly pause, point out very specifically and respectfully what is happening, and offer her a way out. (“This is an example right now of the pattern we talked about. I see you deflecting responsibility and avoiding the issue, but I am looking to solve it with a path forward. What about doing X?”) So it’s very similar to the overall idea that Alison would normally advise, but it has the twist of being an in-the-moment intervention where you model calm and you get really, really specific to try to see if she can break the pattern. Do you think that feels too personal or therapy-ish for the workplace, Alison?

Alison: I think the focus on action — “I am looking to solve it with a path forward, what about doing X?” — keeps it from being too therapy-ish for the workplace. You’re acknowledging that it’s something she’s struggling with and not pretending that doesn’t exist, but keeping the focus on the work and on work solutions (as opposed to something like “What’s happening for you right now?” — which would be starting down an inappropriately personal path). So I think it’s perfect!

I do think the letter-writer is right to realize that the employee just might not be able to solve this in the amount of time a workplace can reasonably give them to … but it’s reasonable to try this a few times and see if it improves things. If you find yourself regularly needing to say “This is an example right now of the pattern we talked about,” then I think you’ve got to start thinking about whether it’s practical to keep the person in the role. But it makes a lot of sense to try it a few times and see if it helps re-focus the conversation in a more constructive way.

What advice would you give to the employee in this situation? 

Andrea: That’s good to hear, that if the letter-writer stuck to the action-oriented path, that the conversation still falls within the realm of an appropriate professional environment (rather than just the realm of my professional environment – a therapy room – where the rules of what’s appropriate are totally different!)

I do think that the letter-writer has to be realistic about at what point this is simply too much of a hurdle, that the amount of extra support the employee needs is beyond the reasonable bounds of what they can and should be offering as a manager. Because at some point it’s like any other challenge that interferes with an employees’ work – a skills deficit, a motivation issue, a behavioral issue – that could get in the way of them being able to perform their role over the long-term. I think your point about seeing if things get better, and quantifying how regularly it is happening, is crucial for figuring this out. It’s interesting that the letter-writer framed it as “usually meets expectations, but had some misses.” What ratio are we talking about – 90/10? 60/40? That’s key to me. Is this pattern something that is occasional, or is it becoming the default, and bringing down everything – productivity, collaboration, morale – in the process? 

As for my advice to the employee herself, I have a lot of hope for her progress if she truly wants to work on this. Anxiety struggles have now eclipsed depression as the most common psychological challenges that people face, so she is most definitely not alone, and there is lots of good help available. A skilled therapist could help her get to the root of how she developed these patterns, in terms of her thoughts and emotions, and even more important, help build the tools for counteracting her usual reactions in the moment. But if therapy feels out of reach for whatever reason, really targeting the anxiety through some self-help methods could still be very beneficial. There are lots of good resources and books out there (not just my own!) and she’d be wise to look into mindfulness techniques, and the tools of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) specifically. Those will help her label her anxious voice, separate from it, and no longer let it lead her down a path that gets her into trouble. She’ll learn to pause and recognize those unhelpful thoughts in a nonjudgmental, curious and gentle way, and keep from acting on them in ways that sabotage her job -– and her life!

Alison: Excellent advice. Thank you for helping out today, Andrea!

Please check out Andrea’s new podcast, Baggage Check. Today’s premiere tackles signs your workplace is unhealthy, how the search for happiness may be making us miserable, and a conversation with author Lori Gottlieb (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone) about when “meh” therapy is better than nothing. Listen and subscribe today!

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Massive Dynamic*

    I am going to bookmark the response to the burnout LW. That was beautiful – such a perfect message.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      Yes it was fantastic! Not just useful and compassionate, but honest about the reality of those situations sometimes.

      1. Freddy*

        LW2 here. I feel like receiving kindness from strangers on the internet about this is making me Have Feelings. I should be clear, my boss is basically saying the same thing that Andrea is (he understands I can’t have the same metrics as before, he is encouraging me to take what time I need, etc.), but I think my sense of guilt and shame around not Doing All the Things as I usually do is hard to overcome. I’ll try to let it go and just do what I’m able to.

        Also, divorce sucks. I don’t recommend it at all. Just in case anyone was on the fence about doing a little light divorcing for funsies.

        1. dryakumo*

          Divorce does suck! Mine was final about 5 months ago and even though I was the one who initiated it I still had a lot of bad feelings about it. I’m doing my best to be at peace with the past me who I can see now didn’t value herself enough to set boundaries and ask for what she needed (and definitely could have used some better conflict resolution skills). Wishing you a smooth process and healing on the other side.

        2. Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.*

          Hey there, LW2! So good of you to write back. I hope you can label the Doing All the Things voice as being a heckler, an unreliable narrator. You can recognize it and notice it and also remind yourself it has nothing to teach you– it is a distortion. So many people are in your court here– and I’m so glad your boss is one of them.

          And thanks, others, for the kind comments too. Alison has built such an amazing community here!

        3. allathian*

          Good luck! I hope you can shut the brain weasels up here. I haven’t gone through a divorce, and even if I had, every person’s experience is different. But you will get through this eventually, things won’t always be this bad, and when you do, you’ll probably find that you’ll have a lot more energy to devote to your job again.

          You’re lucky to have such a supportive manager, and you also have years of tenure to prove that you’re a great employee when you aren’t dealing with a crisis.

          I love it when Alison collaborates with other people, thank you Andrea!

    2. Pam*

      Really appreciate this response! I went through a similar situation myself recently, where I just couldn’t focus on work. I was barely functional while I dealt with stuff at home. This response makes me feel so much better about what I went through!

  2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

    That documentary about the Donkey Kong World Championship was actually really good.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      I haven’t seen that, but there is a series with similar (I’m assuming) short dives on other competitive events on Netflix called “We are the champions” It’s really entertaining and I learned about things people compete at that I never knew were a thing. For example, Episode 1 covers an annual race in the UK: racers chase rolling cheese wheels down a steep hill.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, those are fun. In Finland, there’s a wife-carrying competition where the bigger partner carries the smaller one over an obstacle course.

        I must admit that I’ve never really understood the competitive spirit, I hate losing more than I enjoy winning, so there’s no reward in it for me most of the time, given that the odds of losing are much greater than those of winning. I’ll sometimes participate in family board games, and the occasional game of croquet on the lawn can be fun when an extra player is needed, but that’s about it for me. And then I’ll put on a brave face when I lose. If there’s one thing I dislike even more than losing, it’s visibly sore losers…

  3. Lacey*

    When I lost my job and had a hard time finding a new one, it really messed with my perception of myself as being good at what I do.

    I’m actually quite good at it, but when you can’t find work you start to think you’ve been deluding yourself or your previous employer just wasn’t particularly challenging – so you were good there, but no-where else.

    It really helps to just have people in your life who aren’t questioning that.
    I think it really threw people in my life when I started feeling that way, because I’ve always been so confident about it – and that reaction from them was almost as bad as feeling that way myself.

    So, even if you know nothing about your partners work, it doesn’t matter, it helps to just keep being positive about how great they are at what they do.

    1. I am Emily's failing memory*

      I think it could also be helpful in social settings with other people to keep job talk to a minimum as it’s probably hard for him to stand around and not only not really have anything to contribute to the conversation, but feeling self-conscious about why he can’t contribute.

      To be totally clear, that definitely doesn’t mean cut off all job-related talk when he’s around, or explicitly tell other people not to bring up job stuff – it’s very likely to be obvious if you do that, and very likely to feel patronizing, like you think he can’t handle even being reminded that other people have jobs without going into a spiral.

      Instead, I’d treat it more like how you would handle a social situation where 3 people are talking in detail about Sunday’s football game when the 4th person doesn’t follow sports at all, or the finale of a particular TV show that the 4th person doesn’t walk, or reminiscing about a mutual friend known to everyone except the 4th person – that is, just being mindful of the fact that someone is being left out of the conversation, not letting that topic drag on and on endlessly, and looking for a natural opportunity to segue to a new topic after it feels like whoever brought it up has said what they wanted to say.

    2. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      I went through a very long job search a while back and it was rejected after rejection. I was laid off and working a temp job, kind of like OP’s spouse, and the clock was ticking on the temp job ending. I was only finding very low pay jobs, and I couldn’t even land them.

      My husband was supportive and positive. But sometimes ai just needed to be sad for a bit and vent. So we had an agreement, for one day after I got a rejection I was allowed to vent and wallow about it, and he just could listen. After that I needed to do my best to move on and he could go back to being really positive that I was amazing. And that did help. Having a defined period of time to say “F this, this sucks!” without hearing what felt like at the time just easy platitudes, did help me get out of the spiral faster.

      1. Former Employee*

        Your husband is definitely a keeper. And kudos to you for figuring out what you needed and sharing it with him rather than expecting him to intuit what to do.

        You seem like a really good team.

    3. Aggretsuko*

      Unfortunately, you can’t really just shake it off/ignore the opinions of people who don’t think you are good enough, esp. when job hunting or having evaluations, things like that.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I went through a long period of unemployment (5 years) for medical reasons and the stress from others of ‘how’s the job search?’ ‘Have you followed up?’ ‘How many places have you applied to?’ was enough to reduce me to tears often.

      It took a few conversations of ‘look, I don’t want to talk about this’ and ‘trust me, I’m doing my best but this isn’t helping’ to get friends and family to back down.

      Once the stress of being hassled was over (I know jobs are important and the longer I spent out of work the harder it would be) it actually became easier to app,y for jobs and do well in interviews because I was less stressed.

  4. Science KK*

    Re: LW3, would it be out of line to refer this employee to an EAP, should one be available? I know my EAP offers short term therapy and assistance in finding a long term therapist. Ours also has mindfulness techniques, stress management and other classes available. Just a thought!

    *And disclaimer I know I’m biased since my EAP is very good, and not everyone has this privilege.

    1. introverted af*

      Yeah I had the same question. Therapy can be difficult to get into, but an EAP should be able to help with that. And even if it’s still difficult to get into a specific therapist, they might be able to provide other resources that wouldn’t be appropriate for a manager to suggest but could be really helpful.

    2. Hello*

      Hello! I am LW3, and yes we have an EAP and I have referred the employee to it several times. Lead a horse to water…

  5. Modesty Poncho*

    Thank you for being so sympathetic to LW3… I mean Alison, you always are, but thank you for it. This has been my struggle, and why I freelance now. I can’t be counted on to regulate my emotions and reactions, it’s part of a disorder, it’s actually significantly better than it used to be and impacts my life far less but it still doesn’t and probably won’t ever meet the Office Behavior bar.

    From my own experience, it’s easier to avoid becoming defensive and rattled if I’m alone to process all that stuff and craft a response by text. If the employee is otherwise good at her job, I’d think about whether work from home is a reasonable ADA accommodation for her. Perhaps if given critical feedback when she’s alone in her own space, where she can freak out for ten minutes with no one any the wiser and then reply back calmly by email, the problem would be lessened. (Perhaps not, maybe she’d still be combative and deflect by email, but hey.)

    1. Mimmy*

      As I posted below, I too have trouble regulating my emotions at work. I have wondered myself if freelancing is a better option for me, but I need actual work experience first!

      It is also partly why I wish more jobs in my field (disability services) allow at least hybrid work options. Going through the rigors of a daily commute and the sensory input of a busy office can take its toll.

    2. Katrina S.*

      That was my first thought. Regulating my initial reaction to something can be next to impossible but a small amount of time to process it alone makes a huge difference. I don’t have to be at home per se–I just need a quiet space for a little while. And if that’s not available, at least an emailed heads-up over what we’re about to discuss is better than telling me on the spot. Getting negative feedback in person and then trying to fix the problem right then and there is the hardest possible challenge. (Because my brain isn’t on “How can we fix this error on the llama chart?” it’s on, “They must think I’m the worst llama chart creator they’ve ever had the misfortune to meet!”)

      I use the processing time to tell myself that one mistake DOES NOT equal proof of incompetency, and the feeling that it does will ease up once that initial gut-punch has passed. (I don’t always believe it, but most times I can at least skeptically go along with it.)

      The employee might not be at a spot where she can do that yet, but at least offering some of that extra time/space seems better than the current situation.

      1. Mimmy*

        And if that’s not available, at least an emailed heads-up over what we’re about to discuss is better than telling me on the spot.

        I agree with this but sometimes, this makes me just as anxious. It think it depends on how far ahead the heads-up is and if it’s not too vague.

        1. Katrina S.*

          That’s fair. “Hey, noticed an error in Wednesday’s chart. Can we meet in ten minutes to fix it/figure out what happened?” is much different than “I need to speak to your about your work. Please see me in ten minutes.”

      2. Starbuck*

        Yes I agree this seems worth trying. Just having some alone time before the conversation to hear the “bad news” and let all the emotions pass through your body can be a big help towards having a more productive conversation on how to move forward.

      3. Sharon*

        Similar to what you’d do if an employee had a physical issue in a meeting – take a break, allow the employee to pull themselves together, and then come back to the problem solving/next steps when they’re ready. This gets the manager out of trying to manage the “emotional” stage.

        Also, I don’t think no one has mentioned specifically stating “I don’t care that you made a mistake and you’re not in trouble, I just need your help correcting the document and your feedback about whether there are any process issues we could correct that contributed to the mistake.”

      4. Hello*

        Hello! I’m LW3 and it’s great to hear your feedback. Almost all (95%) of these conversations have been remote and I have recently tried the heads-up email first, so the employee isn’t surprised by poor feedback. It has helped but still some progress to go. As the below commenter mentioned, it can sometimes make the anxiety worse.
        Love the advice about specifics in this thread and will keep incorporating that.

        1. AbruptPenguin*

          I think the key with trying to accommodate this employee’s struggles is that they have to be a partner in that process. Like you said, some people would appreciate a heads-up email; others would hate it. The employee has to have the self-awareness and will to name their specific issue and collaborate on finding a solution. (And that solution has to be viable for employee, manager, and the requirements of the work.)

        2. Modesty Poncho*

          OK, but remote-on-camera-synchronous? or by email? Those are very different, and it may not feel that way to you if you aren’t experiencing the emotional issues :) And agreed with AbruptPenguin, definitely make the employee part of the process and get her input with what works for her.

          Personally, I wouldn’t want a head’s up and then a synchronous meeting. I’d want the bad news in writing so I could read it, react with no one looking at or hearing me, and respond in writing.

  6. ThatGirl*

    It’s not exactly the same, but over a decade ago my husband abruptly resigned from a job after some traumatic incidents related to the job that affected his mental health. He needed to do it, but unfortunately it was right at the start of a recession and between that and his mental health struggles it took him a long time to find a new job. It was hard for me for awhile — I hadn’t fully understood what happened with the old job, I didn’t understand why (in my view) he wasn’t trying harder to find a new one, there were a lot of things at play.

    The crux of it is the same, though – I couldn’t make him do anything, I couldn’t force him to apply at x, y or z place or tweak his resume or any of that. I really just needed to be his support and encouragement so he could get to where he needed to be. And he got there eventually. (This is of course all with the caveat that your partner *is* trying, is holding their own around the house and in the marriage to the best of their abilities, etc.)

    1. Chirpy*

      I kind of had the opposite- my job (that I was unhappy at but wasn’t ready to leave yet) was cut during the recession, and my family members treated it as a personal failure on my part and basically told me I was worthless and lazy (probably not quite their intention, but that’s how it came across) and I just needed to “try harder”, when I really, really needed some compassion and support, and was truly lost on how to proceed. I basically learned from this that no one will ever care or help, I took a really crappy job just to have something stable-ish, and am still stuck here struggling to find something better that will pay me enough to live on almost a decade later because I still don’t have access to what I need to climb out of this hole.

      1. Gracely*

        I am so sorry that happened to you. Sometimes family is really, really unhelpful with that sort of thing. I hope you’re able to find something better soon.

  7. Mimmy*

    I see so much of myself in LW3’s employee. I’ve struggled with anxiety and some depression for my whole life, which includes emotion regulation. I can have good stretches of time when I feel relatively confident and ready to tackle bigger challenges. Yet, the minute I have even the slightest meltdown, my confidence goes down.

    Thank you, Alison and Andrea, for your compassionate response to both LW3 and their employee. I will definitely be looking into the resources mentioned. I’m not really into podcasts but may have to check this one out.

    1. Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.*

      You are very welcome– and I hope you will get some support for some of those tough moments, whatever support might look like. Would love to “see” you over at the podcast sometime.

  8. Riot Grrrl*

    In truth, work-life balance is better looked at over the course of the long-term. It involves the willingness to understand that sometimes, life needs to take precedence whether we want it to or not, and balance simply can’t be found that month—or group of months– at all. In the grand scheme of things, it can eventually even out, and there’ll be plenty of times when you can hit the gas on the job again.

    Yes to this. I think this is such a reasonable and rational way to approach this. Not every job is amenable to spending X hours here and Y hours there every single day like clockwork. There are ebbs and flows. Business cycles. Personal hobbies and interests. Family dramas. Important work projects. The ideal for many types of jobs is for it to balance out in the long run.

    1. Wintermute*

      I, too, really liked this callout. Unfortunately though I don’t think the reality of many employers accommodates such a thing. Being in a high-level role the LW probably will have more luck, but lets be real, the norm for most industries has been redefined as “sometimes we need more from you, but we never need less,” in busy times you’re expected to suck it up but there’s no ebb the other way where they relax. The mere suggestion that two months of 60-hour weeks should result in even 35-hour weeks being the norm on the back end of the cycle would make them look at you like you have three heads.

      For a lot of workers though you can still draw the useful distinction between “do enough not to get fired” and “be an aggressive go-getter”, and if “do enough not to get fired” seems out of reach that’s when you need to loop in your boss and hope you work with some people that see you as an actual human being not a fungible robot arm to be replaced when worn down. But that requires you being honest with yourself about what your maximum bandwidth really is.

    2. BrilliantBrunette*

      Being in a high-level role may give LW more leeway in terms of options to tilt the scales towards more “life” for the time being. If her position offers a significant amount of vacation leave, or options for a longer leave of absence like a sabbatical, this may be a good time for her to look into those options and use them in a way that makes sense for her situation.

  9. Eldritch Office Worker*

    In HR I struggle so much with the line between mentor and therapist. A lot of employees come to me for coaching and sometimes it very much is about handling their emotions, and what they’re feeling in a given moment. Especially managers who are trying to handle their temper or leave their baggage at the door. Or junior employees who are overwhelmed and trying to learn workplace norms but have not learned how to handle their emotions when they receive negative feedback or struggle with their workload.

    You see sad people and you want to help! It’s such a delicate line to walk.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Similarly in education. Students struggle for a lot of reasons, most of which aren’t something I can fix — and I have a fixer mindset and I wish I didn’t have to turn it off so often, but it’s not helping either me or the student.

      1. Gracely*

        Sometimes the best you can do in those situations with students is be as understanding as possible. I had a student who missed class because someone had to be home to get their heat cut back on, and their mom couldn’t miss work, so he had to miss school to be there to meet the utility worker. Stuff like that happened all the time at one school I used to teach at.
        I made sure I was available for after-school make-up classes/tutoring for him and other students, and a lot of them showed up for that when they could.

        But mostly, I think just knowing that I understood that they have lives outside of school that get in the way sometimes, and knowing that I just wanted them to try and that mistakes were something that they could learn from, helped.

  10. bee*

    #3 — I am absolutely projecting my own experience here, but anxiety+impostor syndrome+defensiveness+overreaction to correction are huuuuuuuuge ADHD red flags for me. A lot of ADHDers experience rejection sensitive dysphoria, which sounds like what’s happening to the employee in #3. It happens to me much less now that I’m on meds, but for a long time I used to way overreact to criticism or rejection — I even at some level knew I was overreacting, but my rational brain was absolutely not in charge, my emotions were, and I had no way to regulate them. It’s really hard to describe, the best analogy I have is that it’s like my emotions were sitting on top of me, both in the sense of pain/not being able to breathe, and that I wasn’t in control. Pretty much only medication for ADHD helped, therapy was a bust personally.

    This doesn’t help the letter writer (it’d be waaaaay too personal to suggest to an employee) but I wanted to flag it in case anyone else recognizes themselves in #3!

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Also all very common with PTSD. We’re definitely not supposed to armchair diagnose, but I think the general advice of “this is outside my area of expertise, let’s deal with the professional implications as much as possible but this person needs outside help of some kind” all tracks.

    2. Alex (they/them)*

      yep I have the same issue -_- unfortunetly I’ve been unable to find a medication that works for me

    3. Hello*

      Hello! I’m LW3 and this is so helpful for me to recognize potential causes/correlations/ compilations. Interestingly, I have other team members who have diagnosed ADHD and are very open about it- perhaps the general discussion that comes up may help my employee look into her mental health. Thank you!

      1. JSPA*

        One way you might bring it up is, “I’ve used some of Allie and Timi’s ADHD focus strategies on days when I’m feeling frazzled, or when I’m trying to get a grip on a complex problem. Likewise, Billi’s anxiety exercises are likewise very calming before big presentations.

        Realizing that you don’t need a diagnosis to benefit from those sorts of coping strategies can be so empowering. You have my blessing to set aside 10 or 15 minutes of every work day to sound other people out for their strategies–which Allie, Timi and Billi are usually willing to share–in case any of them make your work life easier.”

  11. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Burnout is so, so very a topic I know a lot about and I really wish I didn’t. More than one nervous breakdown in my life and they leave scars.

    One of them, I wish I’d actually put my worries about work to one side for five minutes and gone onto ‘just get the bare minimum done’ instead of ‘continue at previous levels even though it’s destroying you’. Because the brain only has so much processing power and when you’re in emotional turmoil it uses up a lot of the old CPU – and trying to put a heavy workload on top basically leads to system shutdowns and the infamous BSOD. Only human form.

    The person going into emotional anxiety omg mode from any meeting/critique? Been her. Nearly lost a job from it. But one manager actually took the time to say ‘look, regardless, this cannot continue. You need external help to manage your reactions because this just isn’t working. You want to take time off to get this sorted? That’s fine. But get it sorted’

    It was the hardest meeting I’ve ever been in. was the kick I needed to get help. I won’t say I’m cured (ye gods I need a lot of meds to make my brain work) but I’m able to take criticism without going into ‘you all hate me, I’m too stupid to do this job’ mode.

    I’m no longer at that firm but I’m friends with my ex boss. He says he felt dreadful telling me that.

    1. Water Hyacinth*

      I think “you need external help” is the right messaging for situation like this. Managers do have a coaching role, but there are limits on what kind of coaching should be expected from a manager as opposed to, say, an actual coach or a therapist.

      1. Wintermute*

        I agree, because it doesn’t make any presumptions, it lets someone know they’re not coping as well as they might think and it’s causing an issue but it lets them do with that what they will. Psychotherapy and medical treatment are probably the gold standard but some people wouldn’t handle being told that well, it could look like pastoral counseling, it could look like a self-help group, it could look like leaning on their support network.

        While I think wanting to normalize therapy is a noble goal, even for “well visits” to avoid problems occurring rather than just a reactive treatment model, but that’s not a manager’s job, and some people would react negatively to the suggestion they seek treatment coming with the inherent coercive power of the employer relationship behind it.

  12. Stoppin' by to chat*

    Love this post and already subscribed to the Baggage Check podcast. Great collaboration, Andrea and Allison!

  13. Hannah Lee*

    Alison, thanks so much for sharing Dr Bonior’s work here!

    I used to love her Baggage Check column when it was at WaPo. And kept meaning to subcribe to her Detox your thoughts series. I did get as far as signing up on her email list, so I’d heard about this podcast, but this was a reminder to actually go subscribe.

    1. Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.*

      Aw, awesome! Yes, my biggest hope is to get some of that old WaPo Baggage Check mojo back… along with some of the old live chat’s cast of characters! I really appreciate the support.

      1. Hannah Lee*


        You actually responded in that column to a dilemma I had, with really useful advice. It gave me a perspective and tips that I still put into practice in similar situations. So I’m really happy you have another forum for offering advice and exploring the stuff we humans get ourselves tangled up in.

  14. Critical Rolls*

    Thank you for this. I needed the reminder that work-life balance shouldn’t be assessed on a daily or even weekly schedule.

  15. LW1*

    I am letter writer #1. Thank you Alison and Andrea for answering my question, and to the community for the support.

  16. curmudgeon*

    Would love to know what the advice for LW2 would be for someone who doesn’t have the same high amount of capital as a the original writer.

    1. Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.*

      I think it would still focus on the small goals– the daily lists and the prioritizing, to break down tasks to make them feel more manageable. And I truly think the self-compassion and reality check about work-life balance is important no matter what type of power one has in their job. Small steps, realistic expectations, and prioritizing one’s mental health– no matter what the job title.

  17. Heffalump*

    I was a big fan of Dr. Bonior’s column in the Washington Post–she even took a question of mine–and was sorry to see it go away. Glad to see that she’s surfaced!

    1. Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.*

      Aw, awesome. Yup I have surfaced, all right! Scary but fun to do something totally indie…. and it’s been great to hear from folks from the Post days of yore. Thank you for the support!

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Damn right, especially during an insurrection, or pandemic, or fire, or all of the above at once…

  18. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    LW #2, I am also so sorry about the struggles happening in your personal life with your marriage. It sounds really hard.

    In addition to what Andrea said, could you take some time off? Does your organization have a policy for going on leave? Could you do part time for a while so that you can still weigh in on the stuff where you have specific knowledge, but without getting even more emotionally burned out?

    You know that things aren’t going great at work right now. It’s 100% OK to take time that you need instead of trying to hold on by your fingernails until the worst of this passes. Please be gentle with yourself, OP.

  19. Cam*

    For LW3, I might want them to try just exiting the scene before it drags out. “I’ll let you work out how you want to fix it, let me know if you want help with x.”
    It’s possible that the crisis is more triggered by the interaction than anything else and can resolve on its own.

  20. RedinSC*

    I have a question about the last LW and the response. Since the employee has mentioned her anxiety and imposter syndrome, can the LW actually say to her, as Alison mentioned, Here’s an example, here’s a path forward. BUt then add in, (if they do), we also have an EAP and you can continue to explore support options there to help you address those specific conditions?

    My work has an EAP, and I have mentioned to employees who seem to be struggling that, “you know we have this resource that might be able to help…”

    Is that over stepping?

  21. Hello*

    Hi everyone, I am LW3. Thank you so much Alison and Andrea for answering my question (seriously- major fan-girl moment over here) and thank you to all the commenters, for helping me keep in mind that my employee deserves my compassion and fairness even on their worst day. Please keep any suggestions coming- I love the feedback!

  22. Grieving Sister*

    #2 is extremely relevant to me this year, which has turned out to be one traumatizing event after another.

    Lost an expensive-to-me small claims case against a negligent contractor because his attorney and the judge are rich social friends; a close friend of 20 years was beaten to death by his adult son; my brother killed himself; my oldest cat was diagnosed with diabetes and was literally starving to death but the change was so gradual that I missed it in my grief; my dog’s back legs became paralyzed out of nowhere and I had to choose her life or my job; my elderly mother (who lives with me) is a shell of herself after her son’s / my brother’s suicide and requires an extraordinary amount of care and attention from me.

    So now work sees me as a fragile liability instead of as the you-are-our-next-manager person I had been in February.

    And I haven’t even told them about my dog.

    1. wow*

      I’m so sorry for everything you’re going through, Grieving Sister. I hope life gets easier soon… (And here’s an internet hug if you want one.)

    2. JSPA*

      But…you can be fragile now, and also resurface in your role as “you-are-our-next-manager” in six months or a year.

      Someone in a state of deep grief is, in many ways, literally physically injured. An injury isn’t a liability, unless a player beats themselves up for not playing injured.

      Will you be the same, six months or a year from now, as you were a year ago? No. Life marks us, and time’s arrow is unidirectional.

      But you’ll be at a new equilibrium, and thus less fragile. And you’ll have a depth of compassion for others from having lived though this level of pain. That will eventually make you more qualified to manage, not less.

  23. Throwaway Name*

    I am dealing right now with just finding out my daughter was sexually assaulted as a child AND my father is shutting down (early stages of dementia, but it’s progressing quickly). All I want to do is sleep.

  24. Nathan*

    I really like the response to LW3, and I think Alison’s take was spot-on. As someone who struggles with perfectionism and can have a hard time receiving even the mildest criticism, I get it. But I think the key to remember is that while therapy might help the person fully move past the problem, a compassionate but firm and productivity-focused response in the workplace can help the problem that LW3 named: that dealing with the fallout of this employee’s mistake takes 10x longer than it does with other employees because of her emotional reaction.

    If I get caught off-guard with some unexpected negative feedback, I can’t always expect myself to take it well right off the bat. But I CAN expect myself to hold it together in that conversation. Maybe I need to say “give me a few seconds to think about this” so I can refocus and maybe I’m not at my tip-top 100% best in the ensuing conversation, but it can at least be solution-oriented and productive rather than focused on making me feel better about myself. And if I then have to take some time to myself to be angry or embarrassed or sad afterward, at least I do have a win to feel good about as well: I navigated the conversation, we have a plan in place, and I’m a part of the solution rather than just a part of the problem.

    To me, accomplishing the above sounds much more doable than the much longer-term and more daunting goal of fully changing this aspect of my personality and character — something which could take years, and could very well never fully go away.

  25. Jasmine Clark*

    I looooove the advice for #2. That’s such great advice and I totally agree with it. I can relate to having this problem. It has nothing to do with marriage or relationships, but I just had some other emotional/mental health issues earlier this year that led to me feeling demotivated about work. Thankfully, my clients were kind and understanding when I explained the situation to them.

    My problem was that I was deeply unhappy and felt unmotivated about everything in my life. It was so hard for me to care about work. I’m a freelance writer, and I love what I do and I have great clients. But still, I was so deeply unhappy at the time that I didn’t care about my work. It was hard for me to force myself to do it, so my work speed slowed down.

    Thankfully, I felt better eventually. I recovered and regained motivation for work. But I wanted to say, we are human beings. We’re not robots. We have lives outside of work. Our mental health affects our work. It’s totally normal.

  26. Jasmine Clark*

    Just wanted to come back here and say I hope Dr. Bonior comes back in the future to answer more questions. She has such great answers!

  27. Wha?*

    Why is there no mention of ADAA accommodations to the last letter writer? You are now aware of a disabling condition and not engaging in any kind of accommodations process!?

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