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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Make it Through at Work While Dealing With a Tragedy

Tough things happen unexpectedly, but work is often a constant. You learn of an upsetting medical diagnosis, experience the loss of a loved one, or witness turmoil in your community. You may take some time off, but at some point you’re headed back to work.

Just over two months ago, our son died. It’s hard to express the depth of sadness my husband and I are feeling. But we both coped, in part, by throwing ourselves into our work.

Even when you work for supportive people (and institutions), your actions in the office still contribute to your overall professional reputation. Yes, you’d hope your boss would look past a missed deadline or a lack of concentration that’s totally out of character for you. But that doesn’t mean tardiness, or poor focus, or emotional responses are things you want to become known for.

And while it’s strange to talk about how your response to tragedy could advance your career, that doesn’t make it any less true. When you continue to effectively manage yourself and your workload, you demonstrate grace under pressure.

Here are four ways to get through—and make a shining impression—while dealing with a personal crisis.

1. Ask for What You Need

People cope differently: Some people crave a change, and others find comfort in routine. Some would benefit from being taken off the project they were working on when a loved one fell ill; but others would be frustrated to see their pet project reassigned.

In order for your boss to know which category you fall into, you have to tell her. You both have the same goal—for you to contribute to the team in a way that respects your current emotional state. If talking to others makes you want to cry, ask to step away from speaking on behalf of the organization for a few weeks. Remember, your emotions are fresh and living closer to the surface. Putting someone else as the lead on a major presentation would be better than blowing it because you’re not ready.

Alternatively if your boss suggests a reduced workload, but you would prefer to stay busy, say so. Try this: “Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness and flexibility. Actually, coming to work is the highlight of my day. I’m drawn to the normalcy and feeling useful.” Then, you can establish that you’re ready by throwing out a new idea or recent achievement.

2. Set the Tone

When colleagues acknowledge your situation, it shows that you work in a thoughtful environment. But it can also throw you when you’re trying to get your work done and a colleague stops by and asks you about your tough time.

So, while you’re talking through your preferred workload, let your boss know your comfort level with discussing your feelings in the office. For instance, tell your boss that it’s too hard for you to talk about, so it would be a great help if colleagues treated you per business as usual (and let you be the one to bring it up). If you do this, it can also be helpful to provide another outlet—mention how much you appreciate condolence cards sent to your home, or ask people to reach out via email. That way, you can decide if you want to continue the conversation in person or wait for another time.

If you’re close with your team, another option is to provide a space outside of work where people can express their feelings. For example, the night before my husband went back to work, we invited all of his co-workers and their wives over to our home. If your team often goes out for drinks or coffee, you could invite them to meet you there, giving you all a place to connect (other than your workspace).

Remember, you spend a huge amount of time with your colleagues. They want to be there for you, and opening the door can really strengthen your professional relationships.

3. Don’t Over-Explain

It would be so much easier if you could completely compartmentalize your feelings and only think about work when you’re at the office. But sometimes, you can’t help feeling overcome with emotion.

In these instances, don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself. Close out of your email, shut your office door, put your phone on DND, and take some time. Share a workspace? Go for a walk, and send a two-line email that says, “I’ll be back in time for our 11 AM meeting. Thank you for understanding.”

At these moments, keep your communication as brief as possible. An additional line that says, “I was overcome with emotion,” doesn’t help your boss understand—rather, it makes it sound like you need to take a personal day. Maybe you do (and that’s OK), but maybe you’re just going to need to take some time out of your day to feel sad now and again (and that’s OK too).

4. Divide Your Project List

Along those lines, right after a tragedy, you’re not at your best. For example, the day before my son’s funeral, I borrowed my dad’s car and proceeded to drive it—with the parking break on—until I noticed smoke all around the car.

Similar things can happen in the workplace. Hopefully you’ll catch yourself sending a draft email to the client (instead of your boss!), before it happens; but either way, when you have an off day, it’s time to change gears.

For example, if you need to provide feedback on a proposal, read it and jot down your notes, but wait until tomorrow to send your thoughts. Save cryptic emails for a day when you can compose a diplomatic response. Use these low bandwidth periods to check more mundane tasks off your list.

When coping with a personal crisis, there will be hard moments every day, but work doesn’t need to be one of them. In fact, if you enjoy what you do, immersing yourself in work can be a haven. And—even if you don’t care what impression you make right now—you’ll be glad later if you follow the steps to make a positive one.

Photo of sad woman courtesy of Shutterstock.