At some point, we all have stresses at home, whether it is to do with our children, our partners or our parents.
And without our realizing it, these can impact our work performance and relationships, especially for working women. So what do these family stressors look like, and how can we help to best deal with them?
The Forms Family Stressors Take
There are two main things that happen in families that have an impact on workplace performance. The first is anxiety about a family member due to illness or a social issue. You may be worried about your child who is in danger in some way, either “social danger," such as being bullied at school, or has a medical struggle or a serious illness. Those are ordinary stresses that parents can carry to the workplace, and particularly mothers. They can really preoccupy a parent, and take their mindset away from being able to give their full attention to work. I often have people coming here for therapy who say “I need to have my cell phone on in case my child calls, because they are really afraid of being beaten up on the way to school." And you can have the same kind of worry and concern about an aging parent, or about a spouse with health-related events – for example, if your wife has unexpectedly in her 30s or 40s gotten breast cancer. A life-threatening or chronic illness in the family, especially at the onset, when you are not sure what the treatment is going to be and the outcome, can be very preoccupying.
The other family stress we see time and time again brought to the workplace, is where there is a significant relationship rupture. That could be your spouse telling you they want a divorce, or the discovery of an affair, or even a terrible argument. And you don't have to be married to have a relationship rupture – you could have a serious disappointment from someone who you have been dating for a while that you had hopes and dreams about. And when those happen, people bring that to the workplace. Depending on the length and depth of the relationship, the reverberation of the rupture can deeply affect people short-term in the workplace, or even longer-term.
Unconscious Impact of Family Stress on Work
We may not be conscious of the impact those stresses are having on our work life. If you are preoccupied, your concentration may be affected, even your memory or recall. “Oh, really, did I say that? Today's the date that's due?"
And your emotional bandwidth might be thinner, so you may be more impatient, you may express more irritability. For example, there may be someone at work who annoys you – I like to say they twitch in a way that doesn't match your twitch – but you actually manage it really well and never show your annoyance.
But your tolerance for those folks is now lower and so you may not be as well able to mask your annoyance. Or you may respond in a more short-tempered way, with a peer or someone you are supervising, who makes a mistake. You may have a shorter fuse than you normally do. So it's really important to watch out for that. One relationship rupture can start to deteriorate your workplace relationships, and create unnecessary conflicts.
Some Ways to Help
So what are some ways we can help these family stresses and their impact on the workplace? One thing that can help is to tell those people in your workplace that are the closest to you, your boss and maybe someone that reports to you, that you are under extra pressure at home. Now, it's not a good idea to give all the details of what happened at home – “we had this terrible fight, I said this, then she said that," – you don't need to personalize the content. Just let them know you're having some extra stress at home right now. For example, “Look, I just want to give you a heads-up that I may be a little bit off my game today, because as you know, my parents aren't doing well and I need to be checking in." It can build more understanding – even if your boss has to come to you and say, “I know you're having a tough time right now, but I need this done today," at least they are expressing some understanding. Feeling understood actually helps the stress. Having someone treat you with consideration when you are in a more stressful situation improves workplace performance.
Another thing is that everyone now has cell-phones that text. It's not like the old days, where the only way to communicate was by phone. So, for example, if you need a particular appointment for an aging parent, you can call the doctor on your break and ask their office to confirm by text. The technology has allowed a lot of the planning communication to happen pretty easily. Nowadays most people don't use their work computer for personal matters, because their phone is a computer for personal matters. Getting those texts back on your break can relieve your worry – checking-in is a very good idea, and enables you the relief to get back to work.
The Reverse: The Impact of Work on Home
And of course, this is bi-directional. Our work relationships also affect our family lives. Some people find the workplace a relief from family stresses because the demands of the workplace are so great, it distracts them from thinking about the loss or pain they have had in their personal relationships. But you want to be careful, that work doesn't become an escape from the family, where, for example, rather than deal with the fact that you want a divorce, you spend many long hours at the office, and you avoid coming home until everybody is asleep. This only builds further stress.
And we also carry workplace injury into the family. If you are mistreated at work – if you are spoken to disrespectfully, if someone raises their voice to you, if you experience being humiliated – when you come home, and a family member speaks to you in a tone that you find disrespectful, you may be more reactive to that person.
When we look at people who have very successful relationships in the workplace, but have a very difficult time at home, there's one thing that we often notice, especially with people who have pretty high-powered positions at work, such as those in management with lots of responsibility. Employees regard them as a great boss, and see them as someone who expresses lots of understanding and compassion at work, but they've given so much at the office, they have nothing left for home.
They don't utilize the same relationship skills at home that they do at the office. Instead, they exhibit some very poor behaviour – they're grumpy, they get sarcastic, they speak in code, they don't explain themselves, their expectations are sometimes unreasonable. And part of this is, they have given so much at the office, they come home extremely fatigued. And people are not at their interpersonal strongest when they are tired.
That's why babies whine and cry – it's not that they're not delightful children, but when they're tired, they whine, they're hard to soothe, they're hard to move from one activity to another; well, adults aren't really that different! If in the privacy of your home, you huff and puff, it may be that you are just too tired to be present in the relationship, and you really need to take yourself to bed.
I used to say to my kids when I came home after a terribly long day at work, “I'm not fit for family company." I let them know I needed to lie down and just rest for a half hour, before everyone comes at me with “Mom, this" and “Mom, that." When you come home tired, you need to compose myself to come into the family arena. If that means you have to take a bath or shower, or a 5-minute meditation, or just lie down on the bed, do it. And change your clothes from work to comfortable play clothes. There's some transition that needs to occur. Such small acts of self-care can have lots of relationship benefits.
This piece was originally published February 14, 2018.
WRITTEN BYLois Braverman