Telling your boss you’re going through something personal

Mental wellbeing in the workplace isn’t always related to work induced situations. You may have other things going on in your life that impact how you feel on the job. Considering you spend 80% of your time at work – but luckily you are more than that – it’s only normal that the rest of your life should trickle in to how you feel in the workplace.

We can all think of the joyful moments: engagement, getting married, becoming a parent, getting a new boyfriend/girlfriend, graduating from your degree… They are all exciting things you want to share and will be eager to talk about. Most likely, they’ll also give you a boost and you’ll have more energy to come to work – unless they’re totally distracting you.

But there are also more difficult times that will inevitably happen at some point in your career. It may be losing a relative, going through a break-up or divorce, financial difficulty, facing a major illness… Whatever it may be it will be hard. And it will probably cause you to struggle. Emotional turmoil, difficulty concentrating, all the admin on the side you need to focus on… it’s bound to affect your work.

Yet we all feel we have to put on a brave face and power through, because there is stigma around bringing your personal life to work. For so long it was thought that personal & professional lives should be kept separate. And with the increased pressure to work longer and harder, people are encouraged to be fully committed to their jobs with no distractions. No one wants to be perceived as weak at any given time, even if you are going through some distress.

Nevertheless, I believe there is more strength in admitting you’re going through a hard time and asking for help. Easier said than done, I know. Should you tell your boss what you’re going through? I would say yes. However, I do think there are some considerations.

  1. How close are you with your manager? It’s important to be transparent and let people know you’re going through a difficult situation. It saves you from having to carry the weight of the secret on your shoulders and it also prevents people from thinking you’ve gotten plain lazy or are doing a bad job. On the other hand, how much you’re willing to disclose, including the emotional distress it’s causing you, should really vary depending on how close you are with your manager.
  2. Do you expect anything from telling them? Again you may just want to give a heads up and explain why you may seem distracted. Or you may want to ask for some time off to deal with what you’re going through, or maybe shift some responsibilities for a while. However, it’s important to remember that your employer/manager isn’t therapy. Even if you are close with your manager, unfortunately they cannot solve your problems for you even though they can be supportive in other ways.
  3. Think about what you need. If you need time off, or if you just need to be left alone for a while, make sure you tell your manager. If you prefer to focus on work but minimize your social interactions, or you just need a few times a day where you can be alone to be upset… Or perhaps for a certain period of time you’ll have to diminish your work from full time to part time. Whatever it is you need to get through, it helps if you’re able to identify it and verbalize it.

Of course you may be on the receiving end of this news as a manager, and there are also several considerations in this case.

  1. Listen to what the other person has to say – without judgement. Try to be as open and receptive as possible to what they’re saying when they come to you.
  2. Try not to panic and think about projects.  You may start worrying about how this is going to affect the schedule, deliverables etc. To some extent this is normal. But now is the time to show your empathy first and worry about the deadlines later.
  3. Do not resent them. It will be difficult for everyone involved, but remind yourself this person didn’t ask for this and would rather not be going through it. And if it were you, wouldn’t you want to feel supported?
  4. Do what you can to be supportive, within the remit of work. Do not forget the professional environment you are in and the other people who will be affected. The impact on work and colleagues must be minimized whilst at the same time supporting the person in need. As a friend, your support can go beyond outside the workplace, or even at work but in your personal capacity.
  5. Keep it personal: what this person tells you is in confidence. If you feel it necessary to share with the wider team so they understand what’s happening, do so but apply discretion.
  6. Do not try to solve their problem for them. This is a classic trap we all fall into. Sometimes we see someone suffering, and because we want to help them we try to find solutions and give them all sorts of things to try. It’s a natural reaction but even as friends we are doing them a disservice. And in a professional situation, it’s not our place to do so.

Most importantly, the workplace needs to be somewhere people feel safe and able to come with their personal problems and talk about them. We should encourage this and create the space for people to come forward so that they feel supported in their jobs.

Ultimately if we are able to create these environments, people are more likely to trust their employers, and in turn, they’ll be more likely to stay.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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