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Keeping It Together: Protect Your Job While Everything Else Falls Apart

Updated on March 18, 2012

When Life Becomes Unmanageable

No matter how responsible we are in the management of our day-to-day lives, bad things happen:

  • Illness (our own, or a family member's)
  • Death
  • Financial Crisis
  • Substance Abuse Issues (again, our own or a family member's)
  • Legal Problems

Most of us can and do manage these situations on our own, or with the help of professionals and/or our social support network. But there are times when a problem becomes unmanageable, and it begins to affect other areas of our lives, such as our work.

When To Take Action

While you may be able to keep your personal circumstances and job duties separate, you need to take action if the following patterns develop:

  • You have to take a lot of time off work,particularly on short notice.
  • You have to arrive late or leave early frequently.
  • You have to take, or make, a lot of non-work related phone calls regarding your situation while at work.
  • You find yourself researching options and resources while you are at work.
  • You regularly have appointments with counselors, lawyers, school administrators, etc during work hours.
  • You are becoming short-tempered with people at work.
  • You are making mistakes,forgetting things, or unable to concentrate during meetings.

While we are all occasionally late to work or make a mistake on a project, if a pattern develops, your career (and your job itself) may be at risk. At the same time, if your personal situation continues to deteriorate, it may simply be impossible to meet all of your obligations.

Once you have determined that you can't meet both your work and personal obligations, you need to take action.

Be Proactive

If you feel that your personal situation is bad enough that your job performance is or will be affected, you must immediately find out what resources and options are available to you. You can't expect your supervisor or human resources to approach you about ways to save your job.

The first thing that you must do is find out what sorts of resources, remedies, and rights your company provides you with. You cannot, and should not, rely solely on your HR department or shop steward to inform you of these resources. You need to do your own research.

Read the Freakin' Manual(s)

Unless you work for very small company, chances are that you were given an employee manual when you were hired and/or when it was last updated. Your employee manual will spell out for you your options and resources during a crisis.

Things to look for:

In addition, check out your health insurance paperwork. Your health insurance may cover such things as:

  • Mental Health Treatment
  • Addiction Treatment
  • Nurse Hotlines
  • Wellness Programs
  • Disease Management Programs

You likely won't need to use all or even most of these services, but it is good to be aware of them. Once you know what is available to you and your family, you will be in a much better position to get the assistance you need and protect your job.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Your company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), can be your best "first stop" in your efforts to balance your work/home issues. The people who work for these programs are specialists in occupational issues, so they may be far more balanced in their approach than other care providers or social service agencies.

Each Employee Assistance Program is different, but most offer comprehensive referal services, assessment services to determine what your needs are, as well as short term counseling. If the Employee Assistance Program is affiliated with your health insurance company (and this is likely), the EAP can often coordinate your benefits so as to maximize the effectiveness of your EAP services.

In most cases your participation in an EAP is confidential:Your employer won't know that you are getting help. The EAP professionals can help you decide if, and when, you want to approach your employer about your personal situation.

When to Talk, Who to Talk To?

If you work for a small company, particularly one that does not have a Human Resources department and/or an Employee Assistance Program, you may have no choice but to speak to your supervisor about your situation.

Most managers understand that employees are people with lives outside the office. They also know that if a company wants to keep a good employee they will need to make some accomodations. Remember, it costs a company quite a bit to find and train a new employee.

In general, I think it is best to approach your immediate supervisor and calmly,but frankly, explain your personal situation. Outline the steps that you have taken to manage your circumstances, while also explaining what accomodations you need to continue in your current job.

Do NOT make other employees aware of your situation until you have spoken to your supervisor. Doing so can make you subject to office gossip and, if your company is looking to reduce staff, you can become a target if your supervisor thinks that you might become a liability. Give official notice first.


If you are struggling with a family matter or a situation that requires a lot of your attention at home, you may want to ask if you can work from home, if not all the time, at least several days per week.The benefits to telecommuting are:

  • Regaining commute time. This can mean an extra 5-20 hours per week that you can use to both rest and to deal with your situation.
  • Saving money on commuting costs as well as things like food, coffee, etc, that you end up buying because you are away from home.
  • The ability to be available to those who need you.
  • Feeling nutured by remaining in your "nest".

There are downsides to telecommuting, though:

  • You will be away from the center of office activity. This can potentially damage your career.
  • You will need to adjust to being away from the office and will have to adapt to a new routine.
  • If you are working at home, and home is where the crisis is, you may feel like you are never getting a break.

Talk to your boss about the possibility of telecommuting if you think that it might be a good option for you.

Taking Time Off

Taking more than a week or two off from work to manage a crisis should be a last resort. It can be very difficult to regain your career footing if you have been gone for an extended period of time. But if you can't perform your job adequately, taking time off may be your only responsible option.

Chances are that your company has some sort of leave of absence policy. Depending on the size of your company and your personal circumstances, you may also be able to use the rights given to you under the Family Medical Leave Act to take as much as 12 weeks unpaid leave during a 12 month period.

Another option, and one that people may not be aware of, are short and long term disability programs which may be included as part of your employment benefits. If you are suffering from a medical condition (mental health issues such as depression are considered medical conditions), you may be entitled to use these disability programs.

These programs are different from government/Social Security "disability" programs in that they are funded by private insurance and the certification process to prove disability is not as extensive. By using these programs you can protect your income, health insurance, and (in the case of short-term disability insurance) your job.

Living with Your Choices

When you have made decisions regarding your work/life situation, you should be open to re-evaluating how those decisions are working for you. If you find that you are getting less accomplished working from home than you did at the office, you may need to make a change.

Similarly, if you are on disability but feel that you are up to working again, talk to your doctor. You may be able to return to work part-time. On the other hand, you may also realize that your current career path is simply incompatable with your personal circumstances. Talking with a career counselor might be a good step to take at this point.

Whatever happens, know that you have done your best to balance your responsibilities. In most cases you will find that things can and will get better for you, particularly if you are willing to ask for help. Good luck!


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      Mylinda 8 years ago

      Thank you. I will be using some of this information.