How to Handle a Personal Crisis on the Job

Your beloved cat or dog runs off. Another driver fiddling with his GPS totals your car. A child or parent becomes gravely ill. Your fibromyalgia flares up. Your soon-to-be ex spouse begins making excessive demands during divorce discussions. Worse, someone close to you dies. Meantime, you still have a job.

Don’t do what some people do: just disappear

Don’t do what some people do: just disappear. No matter how dire the crisis, if you’re still conscious, you need to be responsible enough to give bosses, direct reports and clients a heads-up that you’re not available or not operating at 100 percent.

“Life happens,” says professional and personal coach Joanne Korman Goldman of JKG Coaching. “There's no shame in having a personal crisis come up at work. Don’t wait. Approach it like any other work challenge you need to solve. Take action to get the help you need.”

Here’s how to handle a crisis and also manage (and keep) your job.

If you have yet to deal with a personal crisis on the job, be assured: it’ll happen. You can get ready by putting a plan in place, Goldman says. She recommends the following:

  • Make sure your family has emergency and business contacts for you, such as your itinerary, if traveling.
  • Provide your boss, coworker and/or human resources department with personal contacts if you’re having a health emergency, and they need to reach your loved ones.
  • Keep your devices charged so you’re accessible when and if a crisis occurs.
  • Have a point person at work, in HR or otherwise, whom you can count on to notify appropriate parties and handle work commitments.

If your work or mobile phone brings bad news during work hours, decide if you need to leave the office, handle the situation from your desk or set the issue aside until after office hours.

If you do need to leave, contact people in the company who can best assist you in maintaining your work obligations so you can deal with the personal situation responsibly, Goldman says.

If you’re going to remain on the job that day, make a plan with action steps to handle the next stage of the situation. For example, schedule your doctor’s appointment, check on your company’s medical leave policy, or call shelters to alert them of your missing puppy, Goldman says. Taking steps to move through a personal crisis is a great way to feel better and get back to focusing on work.

If the personal crisis doesn’t require you to handle it immediately but is impacting your ability to work, take five minutes away from your desk to balance or center yourself. Find a quiet place, such as an empty conference room or a bathroom stall and take some deep breaths slowly in and out, Goldman suggests. Get some fresh air if you can—walk around the block or open a window. 

For an emotional boost, text, email or call someone familiar with the ongoing crisis. Connecting with someone who cares about you, in or outside of the office, is a reminder you’re not alone in facing the circumstances, Goldman says.

If the crisis is ongoing, ask yourself if you need to take action right away. There may be immediate alternative solutions to delay dealing with the crisis until after work hours, she says. For example, you might ask someone you trust to follow through on the situation until your workday is over and you can attend to it.

Consider seeking support outside the office to help handle an ongoing personal crisis. A professional will support you in having the tools and strategies you need to responsibly address and move through whatever life throws your way.

Consider the needs of the business

On the other hand, also consider the needs of the business. Determine if someone else can cover all or part of your work responsibilities. See if you can reschedule meetings, Goldman says. You may want to take a short leave of absence.

Before meeting with your boss, do your homework. For example, if you want to take a personal leave of absence, come prepared to the meeting with your boss, Goldman says. Bring options and solutions to keep your responsibilities on track while you’re gone. Look to collaborate with your employer for the best option for both of you. 

How will your boss and coworkers react? You may not know how sympathetic bosses and coworkers will be until the situation presents itself, Goldman says. Also important, she says, you may not know how you will react: how sympathetic are you to your own personal crisis?

“If the personal crisis is unforeseen, and it’s a life or death situation, what you choose to do will reveal your values,” Goldman says. “Do you live to work or work to live? Do you put others’ needs above your own? These are questions you can ask yourself today, whether you have a personal crisis or not.”

Personally, I still regret attending only the visitation—but not the funeral—when my great-grandmother died decades ago. I had just started a new job and didn’t want to ask off for an afternoon funeral. My bosses were sympathetic to my loss, and I should have gone to the funeral.

You may be surprised at how kind your business associates can be, given the chance. When Goldman learned her mother died, she was on a business trip 3,000 miles from home.

“I immediately called my manager, who called another coworker,” Goldman says. “The two of them rushed to my location, sat with me, asked me what I needed, assuring me they would handle everything—travel arrangements, business commitments, etc., so I could head home and be with my family. My manager drove me to the airport and checked in with me regularly thereafter. I was able to take the time off I needed to make funeral arrangements. The bouquet of flowers from the company was the largest at the service. The experience of my boss and coworker was one I’ll never forget.”

Note to bosses: the sympathetic, human response boosted the bottom line. The experience “brought our team together on a deeper, emotionally-connected level, contributing to our doubling our sales quota within two years of that horrible day,” Goldman says.

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