"I can't seem to concentrate at work. I'm going through a break-up, fighting with my roommate, and at odds with my parents. I feel totally overwhelmed, like one of those cartoon characters when steam starts coming out of its ears. I need some space, some time, but what about work? Can I take a personal day or should I just suck it up and go on? I don't want to be seen as a slacker, especially since it seems everyone at my company pushes the fifty hour work week barrier. How do I stay professionally focused and still juggle everything I'm going through?!"
-Personally Distracted Professional, 24, San Francisco
Dear Personally Distracted Professional,
Believe me, I understand. When there is upset or chaos in our personal life it can be challenging to focus on work - or really anything at all. You are experiencing what many of us can relate to: work-life balance feeling more like a balancing act than a sustainable possibility. At the same time, maintaining your professionalism at work and performing well is critical to your career success. You can't afford to spend another day distracted and emotionally over-burdened at work.
First step: be present. When you are at work really BE at work. If your mind wanders to your personal life, bring your awareness and attention back to what you are doing or need to do in your professional life. Stop checking your personal email account, turn off your IM and your cell phone. Channel your frustrations into your work. Redirect stress in your personal life into productivity in your professional life.
That said, it is critical to make time to deal with the issues affecting your heart and your head and not to lose yourself in your work. The more you push yourself at work to avoid dealing with your feelings and/or to keep up with the office status quo, the faster your overall well-being starts to drain away. So what do you do?
Sucking it up isn't the way to go as things will just continue to suck at home and at work. Right now seems like a good time for you to put yourself first and take a day off. You are going to be far more valuable to your company if you take a day to refuel rather than going in completely distracted. Smart companies recognize the value in giving employees time to attend to personal matters. In fact, a company in Japan gives employees "heartache" leave when going through a break-up or divorce. The older you are the more days you get off as they figure it takes longer to recover from heartbreak when you're older. Will American companies catch on to this idea? It certainly may curtail bringing personal drama into the office; however, will it inspire more calling in to the boss with "I got dumped" excuses? But I digress, back to you...
Discuss taking a personal day with your boss. You do not have to give specifics for why other than, "I have some personal things to attend to that require me taking a day off." Many employees, women in particular, tend to compulsively apologize and explain. Going into the dramatics of your personal life is inappropriate to do with your boss - especially if you are on the verge of tears. Assure him/her that you will attend to anything that is urgent, and if appropriate, see if someone can cover your workload for the day. Then set your "I will be out of office today and returning emails tomorrow" email response, and for at least one whole day totally check out from work.
But don't slack off on your personal day - it's not a vacation! Use it to attend to your personal issues, not just as a day to catch up on errands and TiVo. Make an appointment with your counselor or life coach if you have one, spend time with a friend or mentor and do things that support you in dealing with your emotions so you can be more focused at work. Make the day one of closure with your ex. If you still are in communication, it's time to cut it off - completely. It's harder to heal and move on from a break-up if you are still in a relationship, and any kind of communication of any kind means you are still relating!
Going forward, schedule some "me time" into your days to help you feel more balanced. Maybe it's journaling in the morning or going to a yoga class three times a week. Build in structured time in your schedule to deal with the things in your life that do not belong in your work day.
Life is indeed a balance of dealing with the normal day in and day out "to-do's" with the curveballs that get thrown our way. As tempting as it is to dodge the curveballs, it's more empowering to deal with them head-on in a healthy way. But it is also our responsibility to attend to our personal matters outside of the office so that when we are on the clock, we can be focused and productive.
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