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Ask a Boss: What Should I Do at Work When My Life Is a Mess?

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Dear Boss,

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay to cut yourself some slack.

I suspect you might not believe that, but it’s true. You are human and you’re going to go through times in your life that are harder than others. When you’re in one of those times, it’s okay — in fact, it’s the best choice you can make — to give yourself permission to not perform at the same level as you do when everything’s going well.

If you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t expect yourself to move around as quickly as when you didn’t. The principle is the same here too — you’re under a lot of emotional strain, and it’s okay to accept that that will impact how you operate at work for a while and choose not hold yourself to the same standards you had before your Series of Unfortunate Events came swooshing in.

There are some people who take that too far, of course, and who use it as a reason to let things go totally to hell. But from your letter, I’m confident that you’re not one of them. You’re someone who came to work on the day of your surgery in order to conduct interviews — you’re clearly conscientious. In fact, you’re possibly too conscientious, based on that detail and the amount of guilt you’re laying on yourself. (To be very clear: You do not need to go into work on a day that you’re having abdominal surgery! You get to set boundaries, and it is reasonable to expect your workplace to accommodate you around something like surgery, even if it causes inconvenience.)

While you didn’t say how long you’ve been at your job, it was long enough that you had time to become a top performer before all this happened. So it’s likely that you’ve built up a bank of goodwill and that people know that this isn’t your normal method of operating. This situation would be trickier if you were new in your job and hadn’t yet established a baseline of high performance. But you have, and you have your history working on your behalf.

So. If your boss is an even halfway decent person, talk to her. Tell her that it’s been a bad year for you in your personal life, that now there’s a divorce being added to the mix, and that you want to be transparent with her that it’s a challenging time for you. Say that you’re working hard to keep it from affecting anything at work, but that realistically this means that you’ll need to be out of the office at times and that it’s limiting your energy a bit in the short-term. (And it’s okay to say “in the short-term,” even if it doesn’t feel like there’s an end in sight right now. It’s reasonable to assume that this won’t go on forever.)

And again, remember that you’re saying this against the backdrop of a history of high performance. Your boss knows that you’re conscientious and driven and do good work. And she knows that you are human and that humans have runs of bad luck. She’s unlikely to throw up her hands in exasperation and tell you to pull yourself together; it’s much more likely that she’s going to appreciate that you told her and ask what you need. And for the record, if she did react poorly to this, that would be a terrible and unwarranted reaction for a manager to have, and that would be on her, not you. After all, imagine one of your own high performers coming to you in this situation and explaining they were going through a tough time and needed to work around that for a bit. You’d probably go out of your way to try make things easier on them, no?

Also, speaking of making things easier on you, do some thinking about your workload. Are there places where you can pare down? There are probably some things on your plate that are nice-to-dos rather than must-dos. Find those things and ruthlessly remove them. Where you have the authority to decide on your own that you won’t be doing Optional Project X or Low-Priority Task Y for the foreseeable future, make those decisions. Where you can delegate things to someone else, do. (Bonus points: There might be people on your staff who would be delighted to take on some of those things as a way to grow professionally. You sound like you have capable employees; let them help you and build their résumés at the same time.)

And where you don’t have full authority to pare down projects yourself, it’s utterly reasonable to go back to your boss and say, “Given that I’m going to have limited resources for the next few months, I propose that we don’t make a full-fledged push on Project Z right now and instead do a streamlined version” (or hold off six months until you can do it justice, or eliminate it altogether, or whatever makes sense).

And then there’s the managing piece of this, which you correctly note can be emotionally taxing even in the best of times. It’s okay to pare down here too. Obviously there are limits to that, but it’s okay to decide, for example, that you’re going to pick your battles for a while. Not forever, of course, but it’s truly okay to pick, say, three big management priorities for the next three months and focus on those. You’ll eventually turn to the other stuff, but your team will not fall apart if you cut yourself a break on the most emotionally draining parts of management for a few months.

But do give people some context so that they know what’s going on. You don’t have to give more details than you’re comfortable with; broad outlines are fine. You could even just say something like, “I’m dealing with some situations in my family life that have been taking up a lot of time and emotional energy, and will continue to do so for a little while longer. I want to let you know so that you have context if I seem off or if I need to be out of the office more than usual, and because I may be leaning on you to help me juggle some projects during this period. I want to be up front with you that I’m probably going to be triaging my priorities during this time, so you might not see me taking on the same number of things that I normally would. This isn’t forever, and things will settle down. But I want you to have that context for right now.”

That language has the benefit of helping people understand what’s been going on if they noticed anything seeming off before now, and explaining that things may not be back to normal right away. Hopefully it will also bring you some peace of mind, because you’ll know that your team understands what you’re dealing with. Plus, by being relatively open about what’s going on, you’ll be modeling healthy behavior for them. They’re going to run into their own difficult periods — they’ll get sick, have personal crises, have family emergencies, get divorced, etc. — and it’s helpful for people to have a model for how to navigate work when that happens.

Good luck, and hang in there.

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Ask a Boss: What Should I Do at Work When My Life Is a Mess?