Wisdom//

These Inspiring Stories Will Help You Focus at Work When You’re Going Through a Tough Time at Home

When we’re faced with an obstacle in our personal lives, bringing our whole selves to work can feel like a challenge — but it is possible.

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When you’re dealt a setback in your personal life, juggling your responsibilities at work can be extraordinarily challenging. Even as you try your best to put on a brave face and get your work done, the hardships you face outside the office can take a toll on your focus, productivity, and mental and emotional well-being. 

We asked our Thrive community to share the ways they’ve managed at work when faced with a personal challenge, and we are so inspired by their anecdotes. The truth is, the difficulties we face outside of work aren’t obstacles to success that need to be apologized for, or checked at the door when we arrive at the office. The next time you’re faced with a personal obstacle, consider these tips to protect your focus and well-being at work. 

Take up a hobby that brings you joy

“There was a time in my first job after residency when I had a lot of anxiety. I was working in a hospital, so I was responsible for caring for the admitted patients. One of the things that helped me a lot during that time was dancing. I was doing ballroom dancing, and moving with the music was very helpful. I was also learning new skills.  I was in a different world when I was dancing — I felt free. It really helped keep my sanity during a difficult time.”

—Sara Mazaheri Jones, M.D., psychiatrist, Alexandria, VA

Open up to a friend at your job

“When I was going through postpartum anxiety, I felt embarrassed at first. I didn’t want to let my co-workers know what was really happening. What helped me the most was telling a close few what I was feeling, and why my moods may shift. They listened and made the hard days easier, because they helped me to accept what was out of my control and make going to work one less thing I needed to stress over. You don’t have to tell everyone, but even having one friend at work to share your struggles with can lighten the load.”

—Lindsey Benoit O’Connell, deputy editor, New York, NY

Tell your manager what you’re going through

“Last year, one of my parents was moving into a nursing home, and the other into an independent living facility. The change was emotionally painful, and it was hard to focus at work. I let my direct supervisor know about my challenges at home, as well as the president of our organization. They were both kind and compassionate, and encouraged me to use my sick time to visit with my dad when he was in the hospital and very ill. Being vulnerable reminded me that life is not always about being productive and achieving. It’s about being human.”

—Romana Lee-Akiyama, nonprofit professional, Philadelphia, PA

Reframe your negative self-talk

“A few years ago, I was struggling with personal health issues and had to soldier on at work, which wasn’t easy. One thing that helped was reframing my self-talk — particularly the voice telling me I should push myself to get back on track as soon as possible. I had to train myself to be gentle and compassionate to myself, and to immerse my mind in kindness instead of beating myself up. It allowed me to feel what I was feeling, and accept that I wasn’t expected to be superwoman.”

—Annie Ashdown, author, success coach, hypnotherapist, London, U.K.  

Focus on the meaning in your work

“While I was working as a senior social worker at Cancer Care, Inc., my beloved sister was diagnosed with advanced cancer. It suddenly seemed difficult to get myself to work every morning, realizing that my sister might not have very long to live. What was helpful was to focus on my goal as a counselor — to help the patients and families live each day with as much meaning as they could. Whatever one’s career may be, connecting to what’s meaningful about what we do can allow us to continue during a time of loss. If we can find anything at all that speaks to us in this way, it can be key in motivating us to move forward. Touch base with your purpose. It’s hard to work during crisis, but it’s healthy, too. The fact that you can function at all reminds you of your strength.”

—Arlene B. Englander, L.C.S.W., M.B.A., psychotherapist and author, North Palm Beach, FL

Connect with others going through the same thing

“In 2012, I’d just about recovered from the main treatment of the cancer I’d been diagnosed with two years earlier, so I went back to work thinking, ‘I’m raring to go.’ I didn’t realize it would be so hard to concentrate, to travel, and to pick up the projects I thought I knew well. On top of this, I was ready to try for a family, and after a year of trying, it became clear I’d need I.V.F., so I started this while switching to a new job. What helped me at the time was connecting with other cancer survivors so I could share how I was feeling, and connecting with the fertility world that I found myself in. To this day, I look back on that period as being the hardest of my life, but I know that finding connection, reaching out for support, and following my intuition helped.”

—Emily Hodge, psychologist and coach, U.K.

Eat lunch outside

“I coped and focused at work when I was going through a challenging time at home by taking advantage of my lunch break, and eating my lunch outside near a garden. The fresh air and alone time really helped me destress and unwind. Taking time for myself always helps me navigate hardships in any environment.”

—Alyssa Swantkoski, executive assistant, Denver, CO

Talk to your boss about a flexible work schedule

“The most challenging time of my life came when I had to raise my two young children while going through a divorce and spending most of my time at work. My job as a director required me to be away from home quite often, and to be on call 24/7.  Recognizing that being with my children during this time was my top priority, I created a schedule and a plan that allowed me to work from home at night, after my children went to bed. It allowed me to be there for them after school, and keep up with my work commitments. I presented the plan to my executive director, who was very supportive. It was so worth it.”

—Carrie McEachran, executive director, Sarnia, ON, Canada

Write down your emotions

“There are a few ways I manage to get through work when I’m struggling at home. First, I often reach out to my support system, so I can reduce the weight of the burden. I also remind myself that it’s OK, and that I can handle hard things, and problems do not last forever. The most important thing, I find, is to acknowledge the feelings and process them in a way that’s healthy. I like to write if I’m angry or upset. I cry if I’m sad. And it gets easier from that point.”

—Rubeena Lanigro, mindset coach and founder of The Gray Muse, Jersey City, NJ

Lean on supportive colleagues

“In 2015, I was in a board meeting right before Mother’s Day when I received the call that my mom had a heart attack. I ran out of the office to get her, and unfortunately, she passed away. I run a nationally known food pantry, and because it was named after my mother, I felt an obligation to go to work the very next day after she passed. Looking back, I should have taken the time first to grieve, but the strength of my leadership team helped me through. I didn’t want them to know the silent pain I was going through, but I learned that the more I cry with co-workers, the more strength I’d find. Being vulnerable helped them get to know me in a different light, and they urged me to take days off for myself. It’s so important to have great people around you during hard times.”

—Cheryl Jackson, CEO, Dallas, TX

Ask for help

“Sharing what you’re going through with your manager and those you work closely with is a great way to approach difficult times, because people can’t help if they don’t know you need help. In addition to increasing the chances of receiving help, being proactive in these situations shows your team that you care about them and how your work impacts them, and ultimately builds trust.”

—Andrew Gobran, people operations generalist, Minneapolis, MN

Let go of your “what if” thoughts

“When I learned I had cancer, my oncologist said to me, ‘Stop thinking about what could happen. We’re going to take this one step at a time.’ I got through that ordeal, only to face my son suffering a severe traumatic brain injury a year later. As I went back to work, my oncologist’s advice never left me. It taught me to be present and deal with what is, not what might be. My being present allowed me to work when it was time to work, and care for my son when it was time to do that. It helped me focus on the here and now, and stop worrying about what might happen.”

—Francine Tone, attorney and business strategist, Truckee, CA

Set boundaries with negative co-workers

“When you’re going through a difficult time, it’s important to curb your interactions with any officemates who create a toxic work environment, such as the office gossiper or bully — or the competitor or complainer. It can help to put time limits on the meetings and conversations that you have with them, schedule them in advance so you are not caught by surprise, and hold them at a time when you have the greatest strength to effectively manage them. Also, prepare yourself in advance for these interactions by taking a deep breath, meditating, and reminding yourself not to internalize their toxicity. Cutting down on your exposure to difficult people will enable you to heal more effectively.”

—Loren Margolis, corporate executive coach, New York, NY

Ask for a mental health day if you need one

“I am the primary caregiver to my dad, who is terminally ill with A.L.S. I also work full-time as the office manager of a P.R. agency. The past few months in particular have been intense. I have found that keeping communication open surrounding the hardship has ensured there is trust between my boss and me. I am not shy to request a personal day because I just can’t get out of bed. All it took was feeling comfortable enough to ask for what I needed. I’ve learned to be open and honest in asking for what I need. The balance will enable you to maintain quality in your work but also your mental health, and level of support needed for your loved one.”

—Mitzi Perez, office manager, Montréal, QC, Canada

Let yourself have “mourning moments”

“Many years of working in a variety of organizations have taught me that there is no one way to cope with life’s ups and downs. During one of those downs, I lost my mother and my marriage was rapidly failing, both at the same time. I found it more and more difficult to have an internal dialogue that would help me normalize my reactions. The company I worked for at the time allowed my ‘mourning moments.’ It was in those brief moments that I was encouraged to open up and share with others, some of whom had walked the same road. Their support took on various guises — for example: a lift to and from work, a gift of chocolate, some sage advice, and always a shoulder to cry on.”

—Val Littlewood, business development, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

Embrace the parts of your job that you love

“When I was going through a bitter divorce and custody battle a few years back, I approached a friend regarding a job, and she introduced me to the most wonderful set of people I have ever worked with. The part-time work teaching children creative writing came as a blessing, even if it was for a few hours a day. The children were a positive distraction from the harsh realities of life, and the company of my co-workers was comforting. The lunch breaks were sessions full of anecdotes and laughter about completely mindless things. These breaks were relaxing and therapeutic in keeping me centered throughout the four-year battle in my personal life.”

—Shalini Y., teacher and writer, Mumbai, India

Is there a way you protect your time and well-being at work when facing a challenge? Share it in the comments! 

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