Steps to Take to Compartmentalize Your Personal Issues in the Office

Our careers will have ups and downs, and so will our personal lives. At some point, we'll all deal with the death of a loved one, an illness, a messy breakup, or some other personal issue that makes it difficult to concentrate and take care of business.

When circumstances like these arise, it's important to take steps to compartmentalize your personal issues in the office so you can stay focused. After all, you don't need to add "work issues" to your list of stressors.

compartmentalize feelings

What does it mean to "compartmentalize"?

To be able to compartmentalize means you’re capable of focusing on the matter at hand and not letting distractions get in the way of accomplishing your goals or crushing your to-do list. It doesn't mean you're ignoring your issues; rather, it means you're recognizing you have an issue, but you're not going to devote attention to it at this particular moment.

Developing your compartmentalization muscle isn't easy, and it's a good thing to work on even when life is going swimmingly. For highly successful professionals, compartmentalization can be the key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Being able to turn off the "work" part of your brain when you get home will help keep you from burning out—and will also help you develop the skills you need to turn the "home" part of your brain off when you need to work.

Setting boundaries at work to cope with personal issues

When you're in the middle of a personal crisis, you need concrete action steps to get through each day. As much as you might like to take an extended leave, it's not always feasible to do so. Try these ideas to stay focused and develop the boundaries you need:

  • Share information with discretion. Depending on the nature of your personal situation and your workplace culture, it might make sense to let your boss know what you're going through. For instance, if you're the caregiver for an elderly parent or family member with a terminal illness, it could be beneficial to let your manager know about this extra demand on your time (much as it's important for managers to know if their employees have young children). However, use caution when deciding whether to share information. You need to know your supervisor will respect your situation—and it's a fine line between giving enough information to acquire flexibility and giving so much information you've overshared. You don't want your manager to question your judgment.
  • Set boundaries with your family members about work hours. Remind your loved ones that staying on top of your job is an important part of your ability to care for them. They need to give you the space to do that. Ask them to call or text you only for emergencies during business hours—and agree on a mutual definition of "emergency."
  • Give yourself as much space as you can. Even when everything's going great outside of work, it can be difficult to concentrate and feel any sense of privacy in an open-concept office. When you have a real need for a few minutes to cry or decompress, it can be next to impossible. Depending on your workplace culture and position, consider wearing noise-canceling headphones during the workday, or make use of focus rooms to get away from the hustle and bustle. Be sure to take breaks to walk around the block, grab a bite to eat, etc. This isn't the time to power straight through.
  • Research the resources available to you through your employee benefits program. Don't forget to check your personnel manual. Your company might offer special leave to care for family members, or perhaps you can access mental health support through an employee assistance program (EAP). EAP benefits are confidential, and if you have them, it's a signal your company believes in investing in its employees' wellbeing.

Rough patches are a fact of life—and so is work. You have the power within you to survive both at the same time and come out stronger on the other side.

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