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Crisis? What crisis?

The Guardian
The divorce is imminent. Your kids are going off the rails. Oh, and your sister's back in the clinic. When your private life is a mess, asks Helena Pozniak, should you confide in colleagues?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/1999/aug/25/divorce.workandcareers

For six months, Sally and her estranged husband battled for custody of their nine-year-old son. At home she collapsed, but at work she kept her worries to herself. It was only when she needed a day off for a final and successful custody hearing that she told her boss. "I think he already knew something was up - every now and then, he'd asked 'Are you all right?' When I told him, he just said, 'I don't expect to see you tomorrow, either; as far as I'm concerned, you're off sick.' I was convinced I didn't need the extra time off but, my God, I did."

Most employees have at some stage swallowed back tears and dragged themselves to work as their personal lives fall apart around them. In the years before downsizing and freelancing, people would take a couple of weeks off with "flu" to pick themselves up from an emotional upset. Now, says Professor Cary Cooper, head of occupational psychology at UMIST, job insecurity means it is a very brave employee who risks a long and unexplained absence.

And yet, says Ron Scott of the Lancaster Group, a private company which provides counselling for stressed employees, you ignore such problems at your peril. Over 80% of people who contact them because they fear a breakdown have problems in their personal rather than professional lives. Work may be stressful in the 90s, but it is problems at home which push people over the edge.

So how should the employee who has a personal problem deal with it? Is it best to soldier on, as Sally did, or to take time off? And should one keep one's private life private, or tell all honestly before the floodgates open and your work suffers, your colleagues run out of patience and your boss loses confidence in you?

It depends upon the problem itself and the corporate culture you work in, says Scott. If a child or an elderly relative falls sick, colleagues will tend to rally round. But enter the more murky areas of mental health, relationship crises and breakdowns, and sympathies may have a sell-by date, not least because colleagues will probably get dumped with your extra work.

Many people who've experienced turmoil at home say work would be a hostile place without the support of at least one trustworthy, sympathetic colleague or boss. But while most psychologists agree that stress needs an outlet of some sort, you'd be wise to think before you open your mouth. "If the corporate culture views stress as weakness, then don't tell your boss," warns Ron Scott. "It could damage your career."

Geoff Trickey of the Psychological Consultancy agrees. "Beware of managers - they're invariably under huge amounts of stress themselves and the bottom line is often just to get the job done." If they are more concerned with the product than the person, bombastic, arrogant or overcautious, take care. "Even if a manager is all charm and enthusiasm, their interest in you may be skin-deep. They may just be out to deliver," warns Trickey.

The manager most likely to lend a sympathetic ear is the conciliatory, involving type who takes joint decisions and allows people their say. "A good employer won't mind if your problem is personal," says Professor Cooper. But employees tend to censor themselves, he says, revealing only problems to which they feel their boss will be receptive. Anything suggesting failure - a broken marriage, for instance - carries a fear that it will reflect on professional image.

"It is important to have at least one person who is behind you, with nothing in it for them," says Sally, with the benefit of hindsight. But be careful they're not a false friend willing to dish dirt in your absence - and remember that when a problem drags on, patience can fail. "We're human - at some point colleagues may just want you to get over it," says Professor Cooper.

Rebecca, who for years has shouldered the burden of care for an anorexic sister, fears she may have scuppered her career in advertising by opening her heart to her colleagues. Whenever her sister's illness peaked, she felt consumed by it. Office time was spent trying to arrange medical care and giving emotional support from a distance.

Teary and tired, she needed someone to talk to, but was slightly wary of her peers. "In a corporate culture, people are out for themselves. You don't know how supportive they'll be." She finally confided in a secretary, who urged her to go to her boss. "My most senior boss is very caring. She held my hand as I cried."

The initial feeling of relief didn't last, however; Rebecca found herself public property at work. Her immediate boss, knowing she was under strain, had instructed colleagues to take her out and get her to talk. "Everyone was giving advice, telling me what I 'should' do. It was like a red rag to a bull." The stress took its toll. "My creative juices dried up. There's no doubt it affected my work."

In the wake of one particularly acute crisis, Rebecca noticed that her job had become less demanding. She duly went to her boss - who had indeed cut her workload in an attempt to ease the strain. But what she really wanted was legitimate compassionate leave, granted in her company only under strict conditions such as the death of a relative. She was given three unofficial days off, but felt guilty that she wasn't pulling her weight.

But time off - or at least a change in schedule - may be vital to your health in the long term, says Ron Scott. "Stress is linked to several life-threatening diseases. You can't afford not to reduce its impact." Long-term stress stimulates adrenalin, draining your energy reserves, and at some stage you need to put something back. "It could make the difference to whether you fall ill or not," says Scott. He advises regular breaks at work - "Get out of the building for at least 40 minutes a day, and try to think about something different."

Try negotiating a more flexible schedule if that helps, and as for compassionate leave, investigate company policy via personnel. Most firms only allow days off under very strict circumstances, but your GP may provide a sick note to allow you time off with the minimum of hassle - and if you don't want "stress" or "breakdown" on your company records, ask them to put down a physical illness.

Rebecca is now anxiously awaiting her appraisal, with the nasty feeling that things are going on behind her back. "I still think there's this question: 'Are you really management material?' I hope that what's happened is not going to be thrown back in my face."

Damaging his career was far from his mind when Simon, a software consultant, told his boss about an impending divorce. His wife had walked out after just a few months of marriage. He'd been distracted, then distraught, but throwing himself into work was the best way of shutting it out. "I've never cared less about doing the 'right thing' for my career. It seemed logical to tell my boss when things blew up, because I knew it would affect my work and he should know about it. But he wasn't a natural manager and couldn't relate on an emotional level - he called her a bitch and tried to make a joke about it."

Simon had been under intense pressure for several months, but took just one day off. "It was revitalising to go to work. I can't imagine the use of sitting around and thinking about it." His colleagues, in his "family-atmosphere firm", were supportive, but didn't treat him with kid gloves. "They knew, but on the terms I had told them. It was a relief."

Most psychologists agree it's good to talk to someone, trained or other wise. And at some stage, whether you like it or not, the truth will out in the office. At the same time, stress at home will escalate if ignored or suppressed, and create more fallout when it finally explodes - by which time it may be too late to salvage your job. And when things outside the office aren't going well, it's not the best time to look for another job.

You may be able to receive professional counselling free and anonymously within your company. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) operate within many large firms and in some parts of the public sector, such as the NHS. Your company pays a flat fee to a group of trained counsellors, who provide advice in person or by telephone. "Even counselling over the phone can prove very powerful," says Ron Scott.

When Sally encountered a crisis for the second time in her professional life, she made sure that her colleagues and management knew. "It was a conscious decision - the last time I'd kept everything bottled up. I just thought it was better this way." Four years after the custody battle, her new partner was diagnosed with cancer. This time she crumbled and, despite her guilt, took three weeks off work.

"My new boss would phone begging me to come in, for my own sake. Before, with the fight for my son, I'd found work therapeutic. This time I just couldn't do it." When she did eventually return, she was still a wreck and didn't care who knew it. Her colleagues were horrified to hear her talking openly about anti-depressants. "One woman said, 'For God's sake, don't tell people you're on them - they'll think you're flaky,'" Sally recalls. "But I wanted people to know that this was me not functioning at my best - that there was a reason why I was behaving like this."

Names of interviewees have been changed.

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