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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Stay Productive at Work When a Personal Crisis Is Taking Over Your Life

If you’ve made your career a top priority, you’re no doubt a pro at honoring your professional commitments and continually striving for excellence. You may have even made sacrifices to succeed in the workplace—like not calling in sick when you probably should have or putting your social life on the back burner to stay late and produce the best possible results at the office.

But how do you keep those career ambitions on track then when a major life event suddenly rocks your world? And I’m talking big stuff—like a family member is diagnosed with cancer, you find yourself in serious financial trouble, or your fiancé calls off the wedding.

Crises like these happen to all of us, can strike at any time, and present a major challenge to staying on top of your workload. Professional responsibilities that you typically excel at with ease—like delivering projects of time, contributing killer ideas to every brainstorm, or making clients happy—can seem like insurmountable obstacles when a personal crisis leaves you on the brink of tears at your desk.

If you find yourself in the midst of a difficult time, it may seem impossible to carry on as a top performer at work. At the same time, you know it’s important to keep your career on track, not to mention maintain a semblance of routine and normalcy through the rough patch. To find the right balance, here are a few tips to navigate the workplace while going through a major disruption in your personal life.

Do: Think Before You Share

You may feel torn about whether you should talk to your colleagues about your personal crisis. Before divulging the details, think about the benefits and drawbacks of sharing.

If you’re experiencing health issues, for example, you’ll probably need to disclose some specifics about your situation to your boss and team, since you may require time out of the office for doctors’ appointments. If your job involves daily interface with clients, you’ll also need to consider if you want to tell them about what’s going on directly or if (and what) you’d like your team to tell them on your behalf.

Also consider what’s normal for your office. For example, if you have the kind of work environment where everyone’s personal life is an open book, it may feel natural to share more about what’s going on. If your office is uber professional, it may be more culturally appropriate to only disclose details though a formalized process that involves approaching your manager or the HR department.

Keep in mind that if you opt to share details about your personal challenges, colleagues may offer advice or ask questions. Decide ahead of time what you’re willing to discuss and what you’d rather keep private.

Don’t: Forget to Set Boundaries with Family

To successfully manage a crisis, you have to know when to set limits—even with the people closest to you.

During this time, relatives and friends may want to reach out to you during business hours to offer help or, if it’s something that affects them as well, look for support themselves. Let them know whether or not you’ll be able to answer the phone while at work, when they can reach you, or what types of emergencies they can (or cannot) interrupt you with.

Do: Give Yourself Space

Any type of crisis involves grief, and how you deal with that sorrow will ultimately determine how quickly you bounce back.

If you suffer a serious setback, such as the death of a family member, don’t be afraid to take time away from work to cope and work through your loss. Rather than heading back to the office the morning after a red-eye flight home from a funeral service across the country, for instance, consider tackling only the most important tasks from home—then spending the rest of the day catching up on rest and cooking yourself a meal.

When you’re back in the office, be aware of the amount of mental energy you devote to dwelling on what’s going on in your personal life while you’re at work. Excessive worrying isn’t healthy or productive. Instead, set aside an occasional 15-minute window during the workday to clear your head and do something that feels emotionally cathartic, like taking a walk or journaling.

Prioritizing self-care is crucial when you’re experiencing turmoil, and your professional life will benefit in the long run. You’ll return to work rested, more emotionally level-set, and better prepared to make good judgments—both on the job and back at home.

Do: Practice Self-Compassion

Getting back into a groove at work after experiencing a major life shock can be challenging, so remember to treat yourself with kindness. A personal crisis can throw off your focus, so if you’re noticing brain fog, don’t berate yourself for not being productive enough—accept that it’s only temporary and do what you can within your current limits.

Often, this means organizing yourself and planning ahead as much as possible. When you’re short on mental energy, breaking projects down into small, manageable, and easily attainable milestones can help sustain your focus. Maybe, for example, you make a goal of completing four tasks on your to-do list, then allow yourself to check in with your family or take some time to think about what’s going on.

By working toward realistic goals, you give yourself a shot of positive reinforcement that encourages you to stay focused throughout the day.

Don’t: Forget About Your Benefits

Many of us work for the same company for years and yet have no idea of the benefits available to us. Does your company offer childcare, counseling, or legal services? Many of these lesser-known benefits can ease the financial and emotional burden when a personal crisis strikes.

And don’t be afraid to go beyond what’s readily available to you. Be proactive and explore if and how the company can accommodate your unique situation. Devise a list of things that would maximize your productivity during your crisis—such as working remotely while you visit family or reducing your hours for a couple weeks—and ask your boss if he or she can grant your requests.

Much like negotiating terms of employment, there's often room for creative solutions during a crisis—but only if you ask.

We all go through our share of dark times in life, and there’s no shame in putting work aside to deal with life-changing matters. Navigating the transition back to work with grace will not only benefit your career and how you’re perceived in the workplace, but can also help you start on the path to emotional recovery.

Photo of upset man courtesy of Shutterstock.