In the summer of 2014, my life got crazy overnight. Both of my parents got sick at the same time and in a matter of months I dealt with seven hospital stays, four moves, two terminal diagnosis and hospice. And through it all, I had to go to work – and function.
If I could have quit my job I would have. Not only because I had so much to handle in my personal life, but because it is really hard to give a rat’s ass about marketing plans, best practices for recruiting, value statements and productivity software when you are literally dealing with life and death. To manage, I used a lot of my vacation time and I even cut back my schedule for a while. But I couldn’t altogether quit; I needed to earn. The thing about life and death is that life goes on.
Most of us do need a paycheck and women especially need to hold on to their incomes. Due to the gender-based wage gap we are projected to earn between $700,000 to $2 million less than men over our lifetimes. We risk losing money if we take time off to care for our children and again if we take time off to tend to a sick or aging relative. (A study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an estimated $324,044 in wages due to caregiving.) But we are projected to live an average of five years longer than men, so we need every penny we can earn for our retirements. But it can be incredibly difficult to work through tough times.
During that crazy summer I learned a few things (some the hard way) about how to keep it together at work when your life is a wreck. Here are 10 things you can do:
1. Go ahead and vent. You will need to release your stress and complain about your crisis, your family, your coworkers. But don’t vent at work. Ask one of your friends, who you don’t work with, to be your listening partner.
2. Break down work tasks into manageable assignments. Writing a 12,000 word white paper will feel daunting. Writing the intro or table of contents will feel less so. When I’m having a hard time focusing, I set a timer on my iPhone for 20, 30 or 60 minutes – whatever I think I can manage. When the timer goes off, I take a break.
3. If big tasks just feel like too much no matter how you approach them, tackle some smaller assignments. Clean out your inbox. Organize for a future project. Just do something because a) it will make you feel more in control and b) you are getting paid to work after all.
4. Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Take notes in meetings. Make to do lists. You cannot rely on your memory right now.
5. Take a personal day. If you keep thinking, “I just need a day to handle all this stuff in my life,” take it. One productive day out of the office is better than five distracted and unproductive days sitting at your desk.
6. Use email rather than the phone for personal correspondence whenever possible. Optics matter so pay attention to how you are showing up at work. Of course you’ll need to deal with personal issues on company time, but be discreet about it.
7. Find, or ask for, a buddy at work. When I reduced my hours, I struggled to coordinate with some of my team members who were working in another time zone. So I asked my boss for backup. She assigned another coworker to support me. He knew what I needed and followed up with our teammates to make sure I had it by the end of the day.
8. Remember your clients are not your friends. You may have a warm, friendly relationship. You may even socialize outside of work. But when you are on the clock, the customer comes first. If they ask how things are going, give them the Cliff Notes, not War and Peace.
9. Respect the flex. During a crisis, you need flexibility. Remember it’s a two-way street. If you ask for flexibility, you have to be flexible. It’s your responsibility to make sure your flex schedule meets, not only your needs, but your organization’s needs too.
10. Change your perspective. Try thinking about work as a mini-break from whatever you’re dealing with in your personal life. Wear nice clothes. Go out to lunch. Life will be waiting for you when you get home.