When Natasha Pryor was driving to a previous workplace, she got into a huge fight with her boyfriend and they broke up by phone. Visibly shaken, she confided in her boss shortly after arriving at her desk. “You need to be in work mode now,” reprimanded Pryor’s boss. “Leave your personal life at home.”
After a tough separation, breakup, or divorce, it’s common to experience symptoms ranging from weight loss and insomnia, to feelings of physical pain associated with seeing a photo of an ex that pops up on social media. There’s no way around it: Breakups can hurt like hell, and it takes time to heal.
So what should you do when you’re feeling an outpouring of angst and pain after a split, but you’re under pressure (either internally, or externally, or both) to avoid showing emotion at work? Fast Company spoke to professionals and career coaches to weigh in on this dilemma.
Florida-based career coach and attorney Wendi Weiner recommends reaching out to a manager after a trying breakup, particularly if you have a good rapport with them. “The reason for that is your output can be affected,” she says. Weiner will often recommend that clients reassure their boss that they will do their best to avoid letting their work suffer, but they might need a little more leeway in the near term.
Even if you’re in a workplace that does not share personal information readily, Jane Howard, executive coach and organizational consultant at Culture Effect, suggests a quiet conversation with a manager to explain that you’re having a difficult time with a relationship ending. You will probably find that they cut you some slack for a week or two, says Howard, a former chief people officer at Joie De Vivre Hospitality. “Almost everyone has experienced this personally, so it’s familiar territory for nearly all of us–bosses are people too.”
One potential drawback with transparency, however, is that it’s impossible to control another person’s response. Some colleagues might not respond with much sympathy, as in Pryor’s case. You might also experience “gossip, harsh judgments, and feelings of being personally vulnerable for the sharing,” Howard says.
One senior professional I spoke to, who requested anonymity, works in the male-dominated finance world. When her boss got wind of her breakup with a long-term partner, he told all of the senior partners. “It was super humiliating,” she says.
But for the most part, the professionals I spoke to shared few regrets about opening up to a boss. After Michael Rubin’s 20-year marriage started to break down about a decade ago, he opened up to his then manager at Netflix during a private conversation. His boss expressed a great deal of concern without encroaching on his privacy, and asked whether he needed to take time off. “I was confident that I wasn’t letting those two things [work and home life] bleed together at the time,” Rubin recalls. “But I don’t think it’s possible that it wouldn’t have affected me in some way.”
In the ensuing months, Rubin says his colleagues also stepped up to provide ongoing support. Both career coaches advised talking to a peer that you’re particularly comfortable with.
Weiner advises those experiencing a divorce or a breakup with a domestic partner to address the emotional and practical impact. It might be important to use vacation time for meeting with lawyers, consulting with a therapist, selling belongings, dividing assets, and moving. “If you have time off coming and you’re really shaken up, take some time to take care of yourself,” says Howard, “especially if you’re so grief-stricken that you are having trouble concentrating.”
Emails and deadlines could also be a good way to pass the time, Howard points out, especially if you’re feeling a bit sad and distracted, but on the road to recovery.
It can be all the more challenging these days to hide emotions at work, especially with social media offering constant reminders of a former partner. For those who are feeling suddenly overwhelmed, Weiner advises finding a relatively private spot in the building, such as a bathroom on a different floor. “Now, with cell phones, it’s a lot easier to step outside and call a friend or family member,” says Weiner, “and no one needs to know your business if you don’t want them to.”
Howard suggests a 15-minute walk around the block, if there’s no Crying Room at the office. (A genius idea!)
Howard will frequently advise clients, whether they’re going through a breakup or not, to practice good mental hygiene.
Her four-step plan involves getting aerobic exercise daily (“Make sure you break a sweat”); practicing 10 minutes or more of meditation (all the more easy with the availability of apps like Headspace); and starting a gratitude practice. Daily journaling what you’re grateful for, ideally at the same time every day, might sound cheesy, but many swear by it. Oprah writes that it helped her focus on what she has–and not just what she’s lost.