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Ask The Experts: Should I Tell My Boss I’m Going Through A Personal Crisis?

When you’re suffering loss or personal crisis, you don’t have to suffer silently at work. Here’s how to communicate what you need.

Ask The Experts: Should I Tell My Boss I’m Going Through A Personal Crisis?
[Photo: Flickr user Martin Hricko]

It’s impossible to keep all aspects of our personal lives out of our work lives.

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Sometimes you have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, or care for a sick relative. But what do you do when you are dealing with a very personal crisis, something that effects you both mentally and physically, but that you don’t want to share with everyone in the office? How do you explain that your work might suffer or continue to lead your team?

Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader navigate a difficult time.

Hello,

I recently suffered a miscarriage, and I’m having a hard time putting on a brave face at work. No one here knew I was pregnant and it’s such a deeply personal thing and there is so much taboo/lack of knowledge around talking about pregnancy loss that I feel really uncomfortable bringing it up.

Companies give bereavement time for a family death, but I don’t think anything similar exists for this situation. I’m grieving and feel like my work performance is suffering but I also feel uncomfortable bringing it up and don’t want to talk about something so personal and painful with my (male) boss.

Is there anything I can do to acknowledge that I need some time off and that there is a reason why my mind isn’t fully at work right now?

Thanks,
K


Dear K.

I am so sorry for your loss. You have done a wonderful job of capturing the difficulties that swirl around the loss of a pregnancy. There are so many intersecting factors here.

Our society does not have good ways to talk about this loss, and there are no standard rituals for it as there are for the death of a family member.

There are few opportunities for social support, because many miscarriages happen before you have even announced more broadly that you are pregnant.

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In addition, there are lots of conflicting internal emotions. Pregnancy creates plans and dreams for the future that suddenly disappear. Even though miscarriage is common, it is easy to wonder what you could have done differently to prevent it.

Given all of these factors, it is no surprise that you don’t feel like you are able to work or to concentrate at your peak. You have suffered a traumatic experience, and you need some time to grapple with it and come to terms with what has happened.

The work of my colleague Jamie Pennebaker demonstrates that if you write about traumatic experiences, it has a lot of long-term benefits. For the next several days, spend about 30 minutes in the evening, and write about the experience in detail. What happened? How were you feeling? What about the event makes you sad, fearful, or anxious. Although it is no fun to do that writing, it helps you to create a story around what happened. Over time, that story helps you to place the loss in the perspective of your life and decreases the stress and anxiety you feel.

A key part of your question was focused on your boss. As difficult as this situation is, you have to say something to your boss. There is no need to provide details about events that you want to keep private. But, it would is important and useful to say that some personal events have happened that you are dealing with and that if you appear distracted or seem less productive, that is why. That provides your boss with a way to explain any change in your performance he may have noticed. In addition, you may discover that your boss is a more empathic individual than you expected.

Although you may not want to discuss the details of your loss with your boss, you may find it useful to have someone at work that you can talk to. That depends a bit, of course, on the size of the company and your relationship with your colleagues. If you have someone at work that you are friends with, you might want to go out for coffee with them and let them know what happened. This way, if you find yourself having a tough day, you have a sympathetic ear.

Another advantage with finding a coworker to talk to is that you may find out that you have more sympathetic colleagues than you think. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that about 1 in 6 pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. That means that there is a pretty good chance that other people in your office have gone through the same experience. And even your male colleagues may have experienced difficult miscarriages in their relationships.

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In addition, you need to be kind to yourself in this period. Any loss leads to a period of mourning. In popular culture we often talk about there being five stages of grief (as described initially by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross), but the grief process really is different for everyone. If you need a little time to think, give it to yourself. If you find that you are having trouble concentrating, do not compound that by being hard on yourself at work. Give yourself permission to experience the emotions you feel.

Ultimately, time a great healer. When you sleep, you help to split off the emotional part of your memories from the memory itself. Be patient. But, if you find that your anxiety gets worse or that you are feeling depressed, do reach out to a counselor or therapist. There are lots of great people out there who can help you through a difficult time.

Good luck.


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