How did I smile through the client cocktail party when my 16-year-old son was in jail in another state? How did I make a presentation about social media when my child had just walked out of detox after relapsing? How did I laugh through the client lunch the day after we secretly hired an escort to kidnap my sixteen-year-old and take him to a $32k wilderness program? And how did I get up and dressed, paste a smile on my grief-stricken face and go back to work a week after my son killed himself?
I did it because I had to
Like millions of other professionals who are out there dealing with crisis-level personal issues, I had to show up and power through it at work because I wanted to eat and sleep indoors. The problems might be different but the effect on us is often very similar.
No one’s life goes perfectly for an entire professional career.
Divorces, illness, death of a loved one, and more can throw our neatly folded life off balance. At some point, personal pain leaks into any carefully constructed professional space. After all, the two personas inhabit the same body and brain
From 2010 until 2015, I struggled to keep my life together when the family superglue sold out
These were the years my younger son, Charles was suffering from depression and became addicted to heroin. At that time, I co-owned a digital marketing company with nine employees. As a partner, work had to get done and as an owner, there was more pressure to maintain a polished image.
Daily I met with the crushing defeat of feeling like I was a failure as a mother. And this did affect my ability to focus. During crises, my productivity suffered as well as my creativity and I clung to some image of professionalism with the edges of my fingernails so as to not let slip away the only vestige of human dignity I thought I had left.
I couldn’t also fail at being a good professional, too. Who would I be then?
Oftentimes, I had to bail on meetings because of a crisis
I started to look “undependable” but the disasters that were happening were not within my control. This was also true for my husband.
Professionally, it was all I could do to maintain a facade that everything was OK when presenting to clients. Work did present distractions and for that, I was grateful. But there were personal counseling appointments to attend, insurance companies to call, and lawyers to hire. A shortage of cash to pay for all the ‘extra’ reminded me of how important it was to keep my job and stay on task.
The pressure was enormous.
How did I manage?
I found support.
I had to find other people dealing with this–a person, a counselor, a group. I did all three because my exterior was starting to show cracks brought on by extreme stress.
Had I been at a larger company, I might have looked at starting some kind of internal group but I found support outside of the work environment.
Employees should feel psychologically safe enough to be honest about what’s happening in their lives
I told my business partner and his wife what was going on.
My husband told HR.
At work, there should be one person who knows what’s going on and why things might look off track. Employee assistance programs are a start but they don’t complete a circle of the growing need for connection and understanding. A protocol is needed because these situations are not rare and you want to keep good people and not give up on someone when they hit a snag.
Ultimately, after my son’s death by suicide, I made the personal choice to go public. Silence on the subject of suicide kept me ignorant of the signs I missed.
Grief-stricken, I wrote a newspaper article about my family’s tragedy. When the editor called to say it was online and would be in Sunday’s paper, I had to pull over to manage the edges of a panic attack that threatened to consume me.
“It had taken me five months to write those 1,200 words but when it was first published, I wasn’t proud, I was terrified.“
I went through my inventory of fears when the editor called
One of those fears was a projected image of all my clients walking out on me. I thought my business partner would regret ever partnering with a screwed-up family like mine. I thought no one would ever want me to work for them again. Naked and alone, I feared the judgment and reprisal for having told and revealed my ugly naked grief in public.
Was that professional?
My worst fear of all was that no one would care enough to read the article because they thought my son was just another “dirty drug addict.”
But the article went viral and ended up being shared around the world because others read their story in mine.
Talking myself through my fears helped. I could no longer keep my personal life out of my professional life because I was too devastated to do so.
And then something unexpected happened
People respected me for revealing the pain.
They saw me as a leader when I thought telling my story made me look vulnerable, weak, and pathetic. All of a sudden I had the support I craved. My professional facade was not tarnished forever. No clients waltzed out because of my son’s suicide. I didn’t become “unemployable” because of it. Although any or all of that could have happened.
It was a risk. But one I have never regretted.
In the digital age especially, as we’ve advanced our careers, we’ve adopted a kind of “I-have-to-do-it-all” strategy that is counterintuitive to human nature. We are meant to connect. Yet when our lives become unmanageable, we turn inward and curl up in a ball while the stress eats at our major organs, all in an effort to maintain an image that feels like it’s the only normal thing we have left to cling to. It was my internal implosion which forced me out of my cocoon to seek help.
We need to offer people more support at work
I’m not saying ditch any professional image and drag all your family woes into the work culture.
But by creating spaces and opportunities for connection and self-care with an openness for those times when a life suffers hiccups or major setbacks, we can create a work culture that helps people manage and cope with these difficulties. Think about what a positive effect this would have on overall productivity. Is your workplace a safe space? You might think so but have you surveyed your employees to find out?
Some people think of their professional image as a trophy that can be polished up and put in a display case
But who we are professionally should be authentic because the best leaders are.
There are times when keeping it together to project the perfect professional brand image is unrealistic and professional aspirations have to go on autopilot while we work through a personal crisis. And facing one with emotional support is what helps us bounce back when we are ready to re-engage with building the professional aspect of our lives. It does something else, too. It deepens relationships and creates a work culture that makes people want to stay and do their best.