Wisdom//

10 Coping Strategies to Remain Resilient at Work When You’re Going Through a Personal Hardship

Leaning into the support of your manager and colleagues will make all the difference.

Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock
Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock

Most of us have experienced a personal hardship that we’ve had to navigate while still showing up at work each day. It’s often during these times that we learn the true meaning of work-life integration, and lean on ourselves and our colleagues to cope and carry on. 

We asked members of the Thrive community to share the strategies they used to manage their personal and professional lives during a particularly difficult time — their coping mechanisms and advice is useful for anyone facing their own challenges.

Curate a toolbox of coping mechanisms

“In 2017, I experienced what felt like the worst time in my personal life. I call it departure, death, and divorce. It was like a tsunami — all happening at once. I had just started work as a professor, my only child was going away to college, my father had suddenly passed away, and my husband wanted a divorce. I gave myself permission to break. I adopted the mantra ‘breathe, pray, and proceed.’ I will tell you what I now have in my toolbox: God, great women who show up for me and are transparent about their own stories of pain, working out at the gym so I am shaping my body along with my mind, constant prayer and meditation, work that fulfills me, therapy, and doing things I love to do, like singing, dancing, and going to comedy shows.”

—Danielle L., professor, Naperville, IL

Delegate frequently

“In 2014 I was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and spent much of 2015 recovering from a life-threatening myasthenic crisis. I came to realize — lying in the ICU, not knowing what the future would hold — that I had to change the way I operated the marketing and publishing company I ran with my wife. The author David Allen says, ‘Control is the master addiction,’ and I was certainly addicted. My wife and I placed key employees in positions of leadership, gave them training and responsibilities, and watched our business not only survive but thrive. We have experienced tremendous growth since then. It was a hard lesson to learn, but one that we continue to benefit from today. My advice to small business owners: Learn to delegate before you have to.”

—Stephen V. Smith, business owner, Rainsville, AL

Get support from a supervisor 

“I have a supervisor who is caring and understanding. I am allowed to arrange my schedule as necessary — I can take extended lunch, leave early, come in late, or even take a mental health day away from the office to recharge and focus on myself. This has been so helpful while simultaneously dealing with a sick parent, moving to a new home, and maintaining a part-time student schedule.”

—Karen Martz, administrative office assistant, Fort Worth, TX 

Focus on a single task each day

“When a curve ball hits, we tend to continue operating exactly as we did before, ignoring our raw emotions. Our commitments often make it challenging to drop everything until we feel better. I recommend picking one thing you’ll get done each day rather than risking getting nothing done. Doing this will help you maintain focus, rather than allowing things to fall apart.”

—Susie Ramroop, mindset coach, London, UK

Develop a meditation practice

“A few years ago, over the course of less than a month, I ended a long-term relationship, and a close family member experienced a life-threatening health condition. The secret formula that helped me stay positive and motivated at work was my meditation practice. Through meditation, I could turn fear into courage, sadness into hope, and anxiety into calmness. I wouldn’t skip my meditation, even if I had to practice at 1 a.m. Meditation was the key that helped me finish the most challenging days with a smile on my face, and trust that the next day would be a better one.”

—Barbara Santos, emotion and behavior trainer, Lisbon, Portugal

Be honest 

“Bringing human emotions into the workplace is admirable in my eyes. When something life-altering is happening in my personal life, I aim to treat it with the same amount of care as I would if something life-altering was happening in my work life. I put my emotions in front of both my manager and team. Keeping everyone I collaborate with in the know is important in case my energy and focus shift in a negative direction. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we’re all doing the best that we can.”

—Melissa Muncy, content marketing, San Francisco, CA

Create a self-care plan

“This happens to all of us at some point, whether there is a sick child at home, in-laws come in from out of town, a loved one who has passed away, a spouse who loses their job, or children leaving for college, amongst other things. Two things that helped me continue working when I lost my father was having a licensed counselor to speak with and creating a self-care plan. I needed to grieve, and it was difficult with all that was going on at work. The distractions in our lives can keep us from grieving and that only prolongs the process, leading to greater difficulty in the future.”

—Josh Neuer, licensed professional counselor, Greenville, SC

Let others in about the challenges you face

“I had a new big job, a 2-year old, and a 90-minute commute. Within a year, I lost two-thirds of my lung to a rare benign tumor, my dad, who was my biggest mentor, died suddenly, and our nanny totaled a car. At 34, I didn’t know how to express grief and stress. I returned to work, pretending nothing was amiss. That ultimately took its toll on many aspects of my life, and developed into a form of PTSD. Now that I am older and wiser, I know that telling others about major life challenges, seeking professional help, and taking time to heal are important ways to cope. We are all human and can only be our best selves at work if we practice self-care.”

—Nancy A. Shenker, consultant, Scottsdale, AZ

Take care of yourself so you can take care of others

“I was working as a full-time director when my marriage abruptly ended. I was suddenly a single mother of two young children with a very busy job. After a few weeks of running myself into the ground, I reflected on what was really important, and I recognized that my top priority was ensuring my children had a strong, healthy mother. I was fortunate to have the flexibility to arrange my workday so that I could be at home in the morning and after school. I found a babysitter within walking distance for the times that I needed to be away. When my children went to their father’s home, I spent time getting to know me again. The best thing I did was finally recognize the importance of taking care of me, so I can be the mother my children deserve.” 

—Carrie McEachran, executive director, Sarnia, ON

Give yourself grief breaks

“When I suddenly became a widow, transitioning back to work was one of the hardest things I had to do. Mentally, I couldn’t snap out of the fog and found it hard to stay focused. Emotionally, I was hit with a heavy heart at any given moment, which would bring me to tears or cause me to isolate myself. I did two things to help my mental and emotional well-being: First, I focused on only three things at a time. It was all my mind could handle, and helped me tick things off my checklist while seeing the progress. Secondly, I took grief breaks. Hey, people take smoke breaks, so what’s wrong with taking 10 minutes to either wail outside or lock myself in a bathroom stall — if necessary? This gave me some private space to process, and alleviated the chance of public breakdowns.” 

—Karen Millsap, resilience and mindset coach, Orlando, Florida

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