what to do when everyone on my team is experiencing a personal life crisis — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work in a small office of three people – a director, myself (assistant director), and a coordinator. We are Human Resources and provide support to a workplace of around 350 employees who are in constant need of support for a variety of issues. We pride ourselves on being a great company to work for, and a great on-site location underneath that umbrella, and are required to work in the office on M-F, 8-5 pm with no exceptions. I am struggling to figure out how to operate in a way that is fair for all employees while also being fair to our department as employees ourselves!

We are in a situation where all three of us in HR are experiencing some level of crisis in our personal lives. My director’s family is going through an intense change as their spouse is out of work and out of commission, leaving her as both the primary caregiver to her young children and her spouse, requiring a lot of last-minute schedule changes and a requirement for flexibility. Our coordinator is experiencing some (undisclosed) mental health issues that seem to also be affecting their attendance, and while they have not come forward to have a discussion about the bigger picture yet, continue to say vague things such as “I don’t know if I can keep going in this way,” “I think I need to make a change soon,” “My family notices how sad I am and think I need to step away,” etc. (Just to note – we’ve discussed their workload and their happiness in their role multiple times following these comments and they insist they are happy, not burnt out, and do not feel overwhelmed with work, but do acknowledge that their personal life is affecting them.)

Then there’s me, who just recently found out I am pregnant and experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. We are thrilled … but overwhelmed by the amount of time and focus it will take for appointments, restrictions, and potential hospitalizations over the next seven months. I have not shared this news at work because the other two members of my department appear to be so overwhelmed …but so am I! Not to mention that the function of our department is meant to provide support to 350 others dealing with these exact scenarios (or more).

I’m struggling to figure out how we’re going to manage the next year with us all needing to pull back on the normally work-focused drive that we are used to. I may be stuck in the middle of a doom cycle, but I can’t stop thinking that we’re going to be stuck “ranking” needs on days where we all may need to be out, fighting each other on workloads, feeling resentment towards each other if their situation “wins out,” and also managing stress around our own situations. I have highlighted these issues to my director and she agrees, but is also stuck in the middle of her own personal issues as well and doesn’t have the bandwidth to come up with a solution right now.

We strive really hard not to be considered the typical HR department that is just there for the employer, phones in the job, and gives the bare minimum. That may be coloring my way to see a solution here, but feeling a little helpless about the best way to move forward for all.

I don’t think you should put off disclosing out of a desire to avoid additional stress for the rest of your department. If you’re not ready to disclose yet for other reasons, definitely wait until you are — but if the only thing holding you back is concern over what it will mean for them, don’t let that stop you from announcing now.

That’s because the situation is what it is regardless of when you disclose … but by waiting, you’re delaying the day of reckoning that needs to happen. It might be that your director is figuring she can lean heavily on you over the next months. If she can’t, she needs to know. (Frankly, that wouldn’t be a great plan even if you weren’t pregnant because it puts such a large burden on you and sets up a single point of failure … but realistically, sometimes that’s where these situations end up.) It could be that your announcement is the thing that makes your team realize, “OK, we need to change something because this won’t be sustainable.”

As for what that change would be … maybe you bring in short-term support for a while, like a (skilled) temp or time-limited contract role. Maybe you borrow someone from another team who’s interested in getting HR experience. Maybe your director has been mulling pushing for a fourth slot for a while and decides now’s the time. Maybe none of that is possible and so you’ve got to streamline the team’s work, pushing back everything that’s not crucial or time-sensitive or even outsourcing some of the more routine work. I don’t know what the solution will end up being, but I do know your team won’t find one (or even go looking for one) unless they’re clear on the need. So make them clear on the need (again, only once you’re ready to announce). And if your director doesn’t have the bandwidth to figure it out right now, propose some of the above.

(Also, I’m sure you realize this, but your coordinator is telling you they might not be there in a few months. Account for that in your planning too.)

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