Your Emotional Map: How to Deal with a Personal Crisis at Work

What sort of a person are you? How do you cope under pressure? When problems occur in our lives they often make concentrating at work difficult – but occasionally a serious personal event may occur that is so traumatic that you need to work out a coping strategy. How do you do that when you’ve got a lot on your plate at work already?

Relationship break-ups, major health issues, financial burdens or the death of a loved one – all these crises can affect our performance at work, and may even cost us our jobs unless we learn to deal with our problems and cope with them effectively.

Problems: You can’t forget them. You can’t sweep them under the carpet. You can’t delegate them to someone else and you can’t tell them to go away and come back another day. You’ve just got to get though your crisis. Here’s how.

Your Zone Map: Move your way though the Emotional Zones until your crisis abates, your nerves calm and your life returns to normal.

black zone


Crisis Has Just Begun: Extreme Emotional Danger

1. Be determined – you will get though this!
Yes you. It’s OK, we all go though bad times. When a crisis hits you may feel numb, angry, confused or all of the above. Until the reality sinks in and you’ve got a plan, just have faith that ‘if you’re being dished it – you can deal with it’.

2. Don’t react – find a quiet place
Just received that phone call at work? While the awful news sets in, get yourself out of the building and take a walk outside. If this is impossible, then find an empty room or meeting space and take five minutes to do some deep breathing. If this isn’t possible – find a cubicle in the bathroom and give yourself a few minutes to get it together, allowing you to make the best choices for the next couple of hours. Centre yourself.

3. Talk to your boss in private
If it’s a serious crisis it may need immediate attention. After you’ve taken a few minutes to compose yourself, find your boss or direct report and ask to speak to them for a few minutes in private. If you are feeling so bad that you can’t even do that, find a colleague that you trust and ask them to let your boss know that you have had an emergency, you’re ok and you will call them within the hour.

4. If you’re going to lose it – take some YOU time
Don’t struggle though the day if you’re not going to cope. This is one time where you should not attempt to be a hero. It is usually better for all parties if an affected worker goes home for the day to sort things out, rather than trying to finish that client report before 6pm.

5. Manage what you can – and no more
Once you’ve calmed down, think about the four or five most important things you’re working on, or your most vital tasks. Let your boss know what’s on your plate and where projects are up to. Work out a short-term strategy with your boss detailing which staff can cope with your tasks for the next one, three or seven days (depending on your crisis) and use that as a starting point.

red light


Problem has Sunk In: Very Emotionally Fragile.

1. Be honest with your co-workers (where you can) about what is going on
If your problem is not too personal, consider sharing the broader details with your colleagues if appropriate. Sometimes this enhances your colleagues’ sympathy and understanding; if they know what’s wrong, often they will be happier to help out.

2. Delegate
Are you a control freak? This is the time to stop. You are going to need people’s help. You are going to need to trust people. If a project is “your baby” then consider the broader aspects of the project plan that can be managed by others until you’re back on your feet.

3. Think about how you communicate
When we’re pushed emotionally, we react differently. Some people go inward and become reclusive. Others become snappy and irritable. Some people may find it hard to keep their emotions in check and may cry or yell. That’s OK. You are a human being. Decide on your level of emotional stability and if you can’t hold it together, then limit your contact with others to email until you are better.

4. Find support – you are not alone!
Call in your personal support networks. This might be your husband or wife, your mum, your bestie, your mentor, (or you may need to call them all). If you’re the type of person who likes to internalise, then do this for a limited time only. This is a crisis: you will need your army.

5. Check out your company’s access to free counselling and other support
Many companies these days offer free counselling and other things to help you with your emotional well-being, such as ‘refresh days’ or personal leave. Talk to your HR department (or ask your boss to) to find out what services you may be eligible for. Companies have these resources for a reason – use them.



Dealing with It: Some Elements of Life are Back to Normal.

1. Take some time to work from home
By this stage you may be starting to feel as if you can get back to your normal tasks. Consider working from home for part of the week, and in the office for the other part. If you are still emotionally fragile, then being at home in familiar surroundings may be healing; alternatively, having somewhere to go could be remedial as well.

2. Give yourself time to heal – don’t rush back unless you need to
If you can take some time off – consider doing it. Often we “crash out” weeks, months or even years after a crisis because we don’t make the time to heal properly – and the effects creep up on us and hit us twice as hard. Do the work now, take time to heal properly and this could save you time in the long term.

3. Take it one day at a time
You are not a machine. There are going to be bad days. Sometimes everything can be going well; you think you’ve gotten through the worst of the crisis, and then bam! a little thing goes wrong and you feel like a ton of bricks has been slammed on your shoulders again. Acknowledge that there will be emotional setbacks and that’s normal.

4. Know that you are going to feel crappy – that’s ok
You know what? If you feel down – that’s fine. In today’s world we are told that we should always be “on the ball”, always “giving 110%”, always looking for the “next opportunity”. It’s all rubbish! You are entitled to feel bad, and don’t let well-meaning friends and family try to tell you otherwise. Don’t deny your feelings – deal with them.

5. Take care of yourself
At this stage of your recovery, you need to start thinking about getting back to normal. How are you eating, sleeping, getting out? How are your bills, your finances? Have you let anything else go? This is where you take note of the areas that have suffered due to your crisis. The next stage is where you start to fix them.



Starting to Heal: Being Responsible with Your Emotions.

1. Stay active
You’ve heard it before, but exercise has healing properties. Once you have entered the ‘green zone’ you should be getting exercise every day – even if it’s just a short walk around the block. Gentle running is terrific for stress release and if you feel really unbalanced, commit to some yoga classes. They will make you feel better.

2. Think about your strengths
You are a strong human being, you’ve got talent and drive, you have strengths that you may not even know. Sometimes a personal crisis can be the perfect time to discover those latent strengths and skills that you have forgotten about. Positive affirmations aren’t just new-age mumbo jumbo: they work. Tell yourself that you are strong, and listen.

3. Know that this crisis could be an opportunity
Crisis and opportunity representing similar characters in Chinese is a myth, but the sentiments of the idea are real. We always learn more from the hard times than we do when we’re on easy street. If you’ve come this far – then congratulations – you have already achieved.

4. Don’t “lose yourself” in work
At this stage of your recovery, you might be keen to throw yourself back into work, working late nights and weekends so that you don’t need to deal with your personal stuff. This is a mistake. By drowning your emotions in addictions or obsessions you’re not solving anything. Take a balanced approach.

5. Still stuck? Get more help
If a long time has passed and you’re still not recovered – you need to get more professional help. The time it takes you to recover will depend on the depth of your crisis, but if you’re still in dirty pyjamas watching daytime TV in six months, you may need to step up your program of counselling. Ask advice, research online and know that things will change eventually.

Coping tomorrow: Personal crises can’t be avoided, but they can be managed. More often than not, going to work can be the last thing you feel like doing, but losing your income is usually not an option – you need to keep going and manage your way through “like a boss”.
The word crisis derives from the Greek κρίσις meaning “a separating, power of distinguishing, decision, choice, election, judgment and dispute.”

You will learn a lot from your crisis – you will grow stronger. You may gain the power of distinguishing, as the Greeks say. There will be a tomorrow and things may even be better.

  1. February 7, 2013

    I had a lot of difficulties when I was working outside of the home…I wonder how differently my life would have worked out if I was able to follow such a map. Great advice. 🙂

    1. February 8, 2013

      Thanks so much viola!

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