Dealing with a messy breakup... When you have to work

By Stef

Navigating a breakup is never easy, especially when it's unfolding against the backdrop of your professional life. When you have to show up every day to work, put on your work face, deal with clients and colleagues, and generally act like your world isn't totally falling apart, it can feel overwhelming (and impossible). You'll be feeling all the feels and possibly dealing with logistics and someone else's behavior  - reasonable or unreasonable - too. Here's how to navigate the emotional ups and downs, and all the other complications that come with a breakup, when you have to earn a living at the same time.

Breakups impact your mental health

The first step in dealing with a breakup while at work is to acknowledge that it absolutely can and will be having an impact on your mental health. Breakups can be emotionally tumultuous and can affect your concentration, productivity, and how you interact with others.

Know thyself

Think about work. Are you going to be able to go there, do your best work, and cope, or are you going to be crying in your cubicle? Can you bring yourself to provide good customer service, or are clients going to be concerned that you've got bags under your eyes and you haven't showered in a week? Assess where you're at and plan accordingly. If you think work will be a good distraction from what you're dealing with, and you think you can cope, then go ahead and work through your breakup. But if you're super emotional and having a hard time, you might need to figure something else out.

Do you need to take time off?

If you don't think you'll cope at work, it's honestly better to take time off from work than to go in and find out you're not coping - and make things worse for yourself. If your workplace offers wellbeing leave or no-questions-asked personal days, consider taking a few days to find your feet. You could also put in for annual leave/vacation days. Maybe you can negotiate to work from home (the key here is that you do still need to work, but it might be easier not to see your colleagues/customers) for a little while. If you do think you'll be okay at work but you are finding it hard to focus or your emotions are impacting your performance, take the time. It's better to recuperate fully and return with renewed focus than to struggle through work while emotionally overwhelmed.

Access your company's resources

Does your company have an EAP (employee assistance program)? Through it, you may be able to access counseling, therapy, coaching, and other mental health resources. Your medical insurance also might have a provision for accessing mental health help. Even if you feel like you're okay now, it's good to investigate these resources and know what's available to you in case your mental health deteriorates or simply to provide you with some confidential, affirming support from a non-judgmental, neutral person. Talk to your company's HR professional and find out what help might exist.

Identify your support people

Do you have support from your friends and family? What about a work bestie - that person you're friends with at work who has your back? Let others know what's going on with you and accept all offers of support. Lean on them outside of work and you might find coping while you're at work to be easier, knowing you have people who care about you to talk to once you're back home.

Do you need to tell your boss?

There's no hard-and-fast rule about whether you need to disclose to your manager that you're going through a messy breakup, but if you have a good relationship with your boss, it might be helpful to share - discreetly. Breakups are hard, life happens, and your boss may be understanding and supportive. They can also handle the situation from a managerial perspective by shutting down gossip or speculation from curious coworkers. If you have more of an old-school, rigid, "leave your home life at the door" kind of boss, you might not get the reaction you'd like to have by telling them - so consider this carefully.

How have other people handled breakups at work?

Chances are you're not the first person in your workplace to have gone through a messy breakup, separation, divorce, etc. How have your coworkers handled it, or how has work handled them? Were they given grace and understanding? Did they have the ability to take time off? Were other people kind about it or did they gossip behind their backs? Was the boss a jerk about it? Think of what you've observed in the past - it'll give you an idea of what you can expect too.

What about all the phone calls?

If your ex is blowing up your phone or if you're tempted to blow up theirs during the workday, my advice is: Stop. Don't answer. Put your phone on silent. Give it to your work bestie and let them screen your calls. Honestly, you don't know what you're going to be dealing with on the other end of that phone call, so it's better to leave it until you're out of the office.

If you absolutely must take calls, do so outside of the office, in a private space, or in your car on your lunch break. Your coworkers will notice if you're on the phone constantly, especially if the calls are emotional and animated, and it will be disruptive to everyone's day.

Awkward encounters

What about if your ex shows up at your workplace demanding to speak to you? First, if there's any aggression, danger, or violence, you need to let security or the police handle them. Don't try to handle an issue of safety on your own. But if your ex is desperate to talk to you, bringing bags of your possessions to drop off, or the like, you need to consider: Can I make this go away quickly and quietly, or do I need to enlist help? Your work bestie can come in handy here - they can pop down to the lobby and tell your ex that now's not the time and place, and you'll call them later. Or your manager or another coworker can simply tell them to leave.

Think about this stuff ahead of time

You might be in a stable relationship and think you'll never need to worry about this topic. But it's a good idea to consider ahead of time, before you're in any kind of crisis, what you can do to help yourself. Handling personal turmoil like a breakup at work requires tact, resilience, and understanding from both yourself and those around you. Personal issues can spill into professional spaces if you don't manage them well. But nobody expects you to "get over" your breakup immediately. By prioritizing your mental health and maintaining professionalism, you can get through this difficult experience while ensuring both personal wellbeing and workplace harmony.

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