‘I would collapse as soon as I got home’: How to cope at work when you’re having personal problems

While people may do their best to not let personal issues affect their work, significant problems can take a toll on your professional life.
While people may do their best to not let personal issues affect their work, significant problems can take a toll on your professional life. Getty

When Angela* went to the washroom at work and discovered she was bleeding heavily, she knew something was wrong; the media professional was around six weeks pregnant.

“I found a private washroom where I could gather myself, and the bleeding kept coming,” she told Global News.

She immediately contacted her doctor, who told her to go straight to the hospital.

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Before she left her office, she quietly told a colleague who knew of her early pregnancy that she needed to leave. She instructed them to tell anyone who asked where she went that she had a medical emergency.

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At the hospital, Angela learned she had experienced a miscarriage. The next day, she went back to work.

“I didn’t know how to tell anyone [at work] or what to do about it,” she said. “I didn’t even realize I could use a personal day for that. I just thought, ‘I can’t miss work.'”

Holding it together at the office

According to experts, it’s normal for people to want to remain as professional as possible in the workplace — even when they’re dealing with a difficult private matter.

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In fact, in many circumstances, it’s best to keep the details of a personal issue to a minimum at work, said Naeema Hashmani, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto.

“There is value in being transparent and letting colleagues know if you are experiencing a personal issue, as it can help explain changes in your behaviour and can provide support and understanding,” Hashmani told Global News.

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“However, as with sharing private information with your boss, I would recommend leaving out specific details to maintain healthy professional boundaries.”

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When to be open with your boss

Lauren Millman, a Toronto-based counsellor and mental health practitioner, agreed that people should keep their work and personal lives separate as much as possible.

“In most cases, your boss doesn’t directly need to know why you will be absent or away for a day or two, and it’s OK to simply say you need a day or two off to take care of some things,” she said to Global News.

There are certain instances, like personal illness or dealing with the loss of a loved one, for example, when you may need to be open with your employer.

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If you require an extended leave of absence from work, your boss needs to have some awareness of your circumstances so they can make accommodations, Hashmani said. Plus, if you need specific resources, your workplace should be able to help you.

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“I would encourage an employee to seek out information on policies pertaining to leave of absences at their place of employment,” Hashmani said.

“Depending on the nature of the personal issue, employees may be entitled to paid time off, like bereavement leave. Smaller organizations may not have such written policies in place, however would be willing to negotiate time off to retain their hard-working and performing employees.”

If your personal issue doesn’t require time off, you may benefit from simply taking a sick day to deal with a situation, Millman added.

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“I encourage sick days to re-acclimate, sift and sort,” Millman said. “If you’re going to be missing work to take care of the issues that are affecting your emotional wellness, do so with integrity and actually work on those issues … so [you can have] a positive and successful return to work.”

When personal issues make it difficult to focus

Dealing with emotional situations can make looking for work challenging.

Tara Farahani, a 27-year-old Toronto-based writer and researcher, lost a friend in mid-October. Her friend, whom she had met through a previous job, died by suicide.

During this tough time, Farahani was also in the middle of interviewing for a new job. She said the grief she was experiencing had to be “compartmentalized” when meeting her potential employer to ensure she made a good impression.

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“The interview involved an assignment and presentation so I had to be very present,” Farahani told Global News.

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“I made a strict effort not to let my mind go where I was feeling, but as soon as the interview finished, the emotions almost flooded in. I remember them saying, ‘Thank you for coming’ and … I almost teared up right then and there but managed to make it out.”

Though Farahani wanted to keep her friend’s death out of the conversation while applying for a new job, she did let a few former co-workers know about the situation.

“I blurted it out that a friend of mine took her life,” she said. “The air was a little awkward, maybe more for me than anyone else, but I was quick to try and change the conversation. They were all so apologetic … and expressed condolences.”

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Be kind to yourself

If you’re dealing with a personal issue that is emotionally taxing, it’s important to practice self-care at work and home. This may be as simple as taking a 15-minute walk at lunch to clear your head or doing an activity that brings you happiness after you leave the office.

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“Professional self-care can help people maintain work-life balance and can help mitigate the effects of stress and burnout,” Hashmani said. “This includes taking time for breaks and lunches, scheduling time off for vacations and practicing boundary setting.”

For 23-year-old Michelle*, socializing after work helped her process the difficult emotions she was holding in during the day. Michelle’s mom underwent surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer earlier this year, and Michelle didn’t like talking about the situation at work.

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“I would go through the whole day trying to be the focused, driven and a pleasant employee version of myself and then I would collapse as soon as I got home,” she said.

To help combat these feelings, Michelle started spending her spare time talking to her mom and keeping active.

“I would exercise — outdoor running in the bitter cold is my therapy of choice — and I would occupy myself with other activities,” she said. “Whether that was a painting class or a dinner with friends, it took a lot of effort to get out the door but once I was elsewhere, I was always glad about it.”

Learning from experiences

After experiencing a miscarriage at work, Angela said she wished she knew that she could have taken the next day off to process what happened.

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“I shouldn’t have been concerned about [missing work] that day,” she said. “I know most employers send out employee-assistance resources … but I never understood how to use those services.”
“There has to be more engagement with HR and employees, and information on how we can use [support] resources and how they can benefit us. I think I could have used them, but I didn’t know how.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity