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‘Should I Tell My Boss About Problems at Home?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

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’s 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 co-worker 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 even taking it on permanently. The task would not be a huge lift for me, even if it were ongoing, 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 while normally my answer would be yes, 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 implied it?

My co-worker 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 saga. But there have been two instances in the last six months where something happened on the home front during the workweek that meant I was sleepwalking through my job afterwards. And the fact that I felt compelled to call my co-worker and bring this up at all (I’m normally pretty private) is an indication that my home situation is already affecting my work.

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 get better, and this does start to have a more substantial impact on my work, I suspect my co-worker 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.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

‘Should I Tell My Boss About Problems at Home?’