Regardless of how committed you are to your career, eventually the unthinkable happens. From serious illness to the death of a loved one to a natural disaster, into each upwardly mobile professional’s life some personal emergency will fall.
And while it’s impossible to be fully prepared for these potentially life-changing events, a little planning can go a long way in weathering them successfully.
“Nobody plans for illness. Nobody plans for a tree falling on their house. Nobody plans for this stuff, and I think that it’s important that first and foremost you just take the time [to do so],” says Alexa Fischer, actor, confidence coach, and entrepreneur. She urges professionals to stop avoiding the process and begin preparing. Here are six steps that will get you started.
Think It Through
It can be difficult to contemplate negative or traumatic events, but mentally “walking through” a situation that would put you out of work for an extended period of time can help you identify what you would need to weather that storm, says Scott Amyx, chair and managing partner at Amyx Ventures, a San Francisco-based venture fund, and author of Strive: How Doing the Things Most Uncomfortable Leads to Success. What would you need if you were going through an illness, personal tragedy, or disaster? Think about what you would need personally and professionally. What help would you need for yourself and your team to emerge from the situation in the best way possible? Make a list of the areas you’d need to address or where you would need support, he says.
“The best thing that you can do is make sure that there is a support structure, but ultimately support comes in different forms. It could be people in your personal or professional life, but also could be faith-based,” he says.
Create A Council
Once you have a sense of the areas where you’ll need help, begin to build those networks, Amyx advises. “One of the wisest pieces of advice that I ever received is having a ‘council of 12.’ This can apply professionally but also personally. Who in your life can you count on when something happens? Do you have that 12 or so people around you that can help get you through tough times?” he says.
Sometimes, your “council” members will provide advice, coaching, or counseling. Certain members may provide practical help such as meal deliveries, or personal friends who will stop by your home to help out. Building such a support system can be invaluable when an unwelcome event occurs, he says.
Suddenly being away from your job for a period of time can be additionally stressful if you’re worried about work, and whether your team members will be able to manage without you. “The best thing we can do for ourselves is to create systems around us so that other people can do the work when we can’t,” Fischer says. “If your work or your gatekeeping is so precious that you have to be there—nobody else can do it for you, or access it for you—that is a liability to your company, but it’s also a huge stresser. So things like organizing passwords, organizing work flow, that organizational piece is actually freedom for you.”
She says that some people fear creating such systems, sharing information, and cross-training colleagues because they worry it makes them easier to replace. But that worry is usually baseless for valued employees, which most companies work hard to keep. And having such systems in place has benefits, too. “It also makes for great vacations, because it doesn’t have to be a terrible emergency. The same systems can be used so that you can actually get away,” she says.
Investing time in building strong work relationships and having a reputation for being reliable and an active contributor to the organization is also important for getting through personal emergencies. “If you make yourself an invaluable part of your business community, so that your unique contributions are seen as unique, if you’re really engaged, if you’re looking for innovative ways to add value to the company, there’s a much greater chance that when and if something happens, the company is going to continue to give you what time you need, because they want you back. You’re valuable to them,” says business leadership coach Cheri Torres, coauthor of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.
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On a more personal level, when you reach out to help colleagues and others in your network when they need you, you invest in that goodwill bank, she says. The beneficiaries of your kindness and help are likely to give back as well, and to pick up slack when you can’t do so.
Weave Your Own Safety Net
A 2017 report from the Federal Reserve found that 44% of Americans have so little savings that they couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 emergency expense. Beyond preparing through systems and building relationships, it’s also important to prepare financially to the best possible extent, says Amyx, who was once a financial planner.
Saving a nest egg, investing in insurance to protect your assets and income, and a creating a comprehensive financial plan can give you more flexibility and help you bounce back from difficult times. Such tools may include disability, renters, or homeowners insurance and a line of credit that can help you cover unexpected expenses in a pinch. More companies are making financial counseling and planning advice available to their employees, so check with your HR department to see what might be available to you.
You should also know your employer policies and benefits, as well as your employment rights under state, federal, and local law, Torres advises. Be sure you know the leave and other benefits to which you are entitled, both for company policy and the laws that govern your company.
Know How You Stay Grounded
In the throes of a personal emergency, it can be difficult to think clearly and not get caught up in the emotion surrounding the event, Fischer says. Take care of yourself as much as possible during times like these and find ways to alleviate stress and calm your inner critic.
“In my own evolution, [I’ve learned] just to recognize the critic, but then find that calmer voice that is going to look toward something that is more positive that we’re going to work on,” she says. So, whether it’s taking long walks, making art, or simply spending time with family and friends, find the activities that help you remain calm and centered so you can make the best decisions in difficult situations, she says.