No matter how lucky you are in life, sometimes very bad things happen: injury, serious illness, or worse, for you or a loved one.
In these situations, there are more important things than your job but that doesn’t mean that you can completely disregard your work responsibilities. After all, even when you’re not there, work will have to continue, and the professional situation you return to will depend on how well you took care of things when you left.
Even during emergencies, there are steps you can take to make sure a personal crisis doesn’t become a work crisis.
The moment disaster strikes
It can be hard to think clearly once you receive that phone call telling you something terrible has happened but a little bit of composure goes a long way in these situations.
“Take a moment for yourself and breathe and don’t panic,” said Karen Elizaga, a career coach who specializes in high-level executives. “You have to delegate and communicate with the people around you – both above you and below you.”
Even if you have to leave work immediately, tell someone quickly what has happened and where you’re going. The best option is to tell your immediate superior or someone in human resources. In crisis situations, those around you will be compassionate and understand that you need to go.
Once it’s become clear that you are leaving and may not be back soon, your colleagues will scramble to make sure that business can continue in your absence. Any help you can give them in figuring out what you were working on, what was a high priority, and who is best suited to handle it will be helpful and appreciated.
“Whether it’s the night before a big road show for bankers or it’s early in April for accountants, figure out what the pressing issues are and who are the best people to handle them,” said Elizaga. “Work still needs to get done. Who are the people who are going to step in and support you and the clients the best way possible? Hand over your work to them.”
When you’re gone
Some crises will be over quickly and only require fleeting, focused attention. Others will be ongoing and could last weeks or months. When you understand the nature of the emergency, it’s important to communicate to your colleagues how available you will be to work while you are gone and when you’re coming back.
“People want to know a timeframe,” said Lindsey Pollak, a workplace coach who also works with insurer The Hartford to educate millenials about employer benefits options. She adds that your boss will also want to know what you will be able to handle while you’re gone and that there’s a right and a wrong way to let her know. “Consider what you can do. Don’t call your boss and say, ‘I can’t function and I don’t know when I’m going to be back.’ That is chaos and people don’t like uncertainty.”
At the same time, don’t say that you will be able to work when you won’t be capable of it.
“There are some people who can handle emotional shocks better than others,” said Andrea Ballard, a career coach and former human resources director at Peterson Sullivan, a public accounting firm in Seattle. “You know your ability: Are you going to be able to get this work done or not?”
If the answer is “no” then you need to make the work available to others and prepare them to take over as best you can.
Communication is as important when coming back to work from a crisis as in any other time. Be honest with your colleagues about what you can and can’t handle. Many companies will be there to help you along the way.
“Some companies have employee assistance plans,” said Ballard. “That could mean counselling or daycare alternatives, for instance.”
You should be aware, however, that not everyone will be so understanding.
“There will be some fallout,” said Roy Cohen, a career coach specialising in finance professionals. “Business will go on as normal without you and people will scramble to one-up you or upstage you. So when you come back you need to make sure that you jump in completely and with undivided attention.”
The amount of time you have been away, how you handled leaving and being gone, and how you behave when you come back are all factors in how you’ll fare, Cohen added.
In the most dire tragedies, however, Cohen said that there is a chance of compassion from your rivals.
Dealing with fallout
In the highest-pressure, highest profile-positions, a personal tragedy may set your career back, especially if your rivals attempt to take advantage of it to usurp your position at the firm. Still, no matter your situation, don’t be tempted to ignore a serious life crisis because of work concerns – it could backfire.
“No matter how urgent the business matter may be, there are some matters that take priority,” said Cohen. “If you don’t respond to an emergency, there will be consequences. You may say, ‘well, my job is more important than dealing with a family emergency’, but the respect your colleagues and superiors have for you may be diminished if they find out that you haven’t dealt with a family emergency maturely.”
While there will still be fallout, there are steps you can take to mitigate it.
Firstly, “consider not disconnecting yourself completely,” said Cohen. Even just staying in touch through email can make a difference.
Time is also a factor. Being gone for a week or two may not hurt your career too much, but a bigger chunk of time will give your rivals more of a chance to forget about the situation you’re going through and pounce.
Finally, Cohen said that having a partner to help you deal with such situations can help.
“Some very successful people I know are married and have their spouses take care of that stuff, so it allows them to be minimally involved in crisis management,” he said.
Death, serious illness, injury and other tragedies touch us all at some point — it’s how you handle it that defines who you are to your friends, family and colleagues.
“This is inevitable,” said Cohen. “So, at some point, we make decisions about priorities.”