Balancing Your Work Life During a Crisis is the first of two posts dealing with personal crisis and how it affects work environments. This blog focuses on the perspective of the employee. For the employer's perspective and tips on how to handle the situation when it is one of your employees going through the tragedy, please read Paul Glover's Helping Employees Survive A Personal Crisis by clicking here.

It can happen with little or no warning: heartbreaking news that your child is seriously ill, there is an urgent need to help a parent move to a more secure location, or your marriage is ending.  We recognize that these critical times can be overwhelming, and those who work outside of the home face the additional challenge of balancing work in a time of crisis.

Although it is tempting to ignore work demands and focus all of your time trying to address the emergency, that's often not feasible.

At the same time, it's essential to recognize that time demands and emotional strain will likely impact you at your job.  In other words, no matter how much you may try, you will not be able to perform your job at the same level.  Once you recognize that, you can take steps that will help you stay afloat at work until your crisis is resolved.

  1. Assess the situation – while you cannot predict the future, you may be able to estimate the duration of the crisis.  If you need to move Dad to an assisted living community, for example, you can factor in the time needed to visit and find a place, move him, and get him settled.  If a family member is critically ill, there may be a time frame for the treatment process.  If you're beginning divorce proceedings, you may need intermittent time off for meetings with attorneys and court proceedings.  You can estimate if this may last a month, six months, or even indefinitely.
  2. Lower your self-expectations – since you will not be able to accomplish every work task, prioritize what needs done, figuring out which tasks are most critical and determining whether you are able to do them or if you need help.
  3. Consider your options – depending on your job and your company, you may have options that allow time off for personal reasons.  Some companies even allow parents to stay home when their child is sick.  Check with your human resources department to see what your company's policy's permit.

Once you understand your needs and your company's policies, it's time to tell your boss what's going on.  You may decide to provide the minimum details—Nancy and I are getting a divorce—or you may give more details on a child's or spouse's illness.  Although you might prefer to keep this information private, telling your boss upfront gives you both time to prepare for your needs during the crisis. 

Given, if you have a mean and vindictive boss who is just waiting for the opportunity to put your head on the chopping block, you may want to keep your news to yourself.  But if you have established a solid reputation in your job and have a decent working relationship with your coworkers and manager(s), providing this information gives your boss more time to figure out how to best support you while still meeting departmental goals.

Even more important, if your boss notices a dip in your performance and understands that it is due to a temporary crisis, she is more likely to be understanding than if she doesn't know what you're going through.  She may also be able to work with you to determine which tasks are essential and which ones can temporarily slide or be re-assigned.

Whether it's written in the company policy manual or not, many companies have come up with creative ways to assist employees in need.   Consider options such as working virtually instead of in the office on days you need to be at a sick child's side.  A flexible schedule allowing you to come in early and leave early may help manage shifts for a sick parent or allow you to provide transportation to important appointments.  Shorter office hours, combined with accrued vacation hours, can be useful.  A temporary part-time schedule or a temporary leave may be possibilities as well.

Just as it is important to plan for how to balance work in the midst of a crisis, it's also important to have a plan for re-establishing yourself in your job after the crisis is over.  As much possible, speak confidently about your intention to return to your previous level of performance, and reinforce your commitment to the company. 

By definition, a crisis is a critical moment.  It may be difficult to handle it well, but by spending a little time anticipating the scope of it and your needs on the job, you can put together a plan that encourages your workplace to help you get through the crisis with your career intact.

Alesia Shute is a childhood cancer survivor from the age of 7, and is the author of Everything’s Okay ( the founder of The Alesia Shute Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of families facing childhood disease, both by making hospital stays more comfortable and by funding research that will treat or eliminate childhood illnesses. She has been featured in MORE Magazine, Parents Magazine, and Coping Magazine.