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8th July 2013

Coping with a Personal Crisis at Work

Shelly Rubinstein, MD of Impact Consulting Psychologists was interviewed about her thoughts, as a Chartered Psychologist, on how to cope with big personal issues at work for a Financial Times article in July 2013.

It is inevitable that at some point, personal matters, such as bereavement, an ill relative, personal medical worries or divorce will have a profound effect on your life and distract you from your priorities at work – but as Shelly says; “you can’t just walk away from work while you deal with your emotions”. At the same time, you can’t just let it all bottle up; “It is much better to tell someone than letting the pressure build up, then breaking down and saying, ‘I can’t do this’.”

Identifying who to tell at work can be tricky and it may depend on how personal the crisis – in some cases, you might not want to tell anyone, but if it’s affecting your performance at work, is it something your boss needs to know? It may not be a good idea to jump in at the deep end and tell your boss straight away. If you allow yourself the time and space to deal with your emotions first, you will be better able to have control over them and remain professional when explaining that something big is happening in your personal life. Be open an honest in saying that it’s a difficult time for you, but plan in advance just how much you are comfortable with sharing.

There is a vast amount of research on coping and what kinds of strategies may be more or less useful depending on different situations. Problem-focussed coping strategies aim to reduce or remove the source of stress in practical ways, but when you’re at work dealing with a personal issue, there is little you can do to directly address the problem. However, emotion-focused strategies are more effective when the situation is out of your control (i.e. when you’re at work). Emotion-focussed strategies aim to reduce the emotional discomfort caused by the situation, for example, keeping busy and distracting yourself from the problem. You can think of your workplace as an escape; while your private life might be stressful and difficult to deal with, you can use your time at work to take your mind off it. “Work can be quite positive and can be an escape if it’s going well. The real problems occur when work is too difficult and home life is too difficult”, Shelly explains.

Having a strong support network is a great help. It provides a sense of security and belonging; knowing you have people you trust and can rely on, who can provide emotional, informational or instrumental support. Building strong, reciprocal relationships inside and/or outside of work will make a positive contribution to psychological well-being and buffer the negative consequences of stress in your personal and work life.