How to talk to your boss about personal problems

How to talk to your boss about personal problems

Whether you’re going through a breakup, grieving a lost pet, or dealing with something even more serious, personal problems don’t always go away when you’re at work. When you’ve got something on your mind, it can affect your mood, your attention span, and (unsurprisingly) your performance.

Should you share your personal issues with your boss, though?

There are plenty of factors to take into consideration before sharing something intimate with your manager—including whether the issue is taking a toll on your work, what kind of personality your boss has, and whether they can help you. Not all problems belong in the workplace, but there are times when being open can benefit you—and your boss.

Here’s what you should ask yourself to help you decide whether and when to tell them.

1. Is there something you need at work?

Maybe you need a lighter workload or a more private workspace where you can avoid being around other people for a bit. It’s worth telling your manager about your personal problem if there’s something you need at work—but you have to know specifically what you’re asking for. So think through whatever accommodations or requests you need before you open up the conversation.

On the other hand, if there’s nothing tangible that would help you or you’re not clear on what that might be, hold back. You don’t want to treat them like a close friend you’re venting to—better to spill the beans only if you have a (realistic) end goal.

2. Is there something your boss can do about it?

After deciding what you may need as a result of your personal issue, you have to figure out if it’s something your boss can actually help you with. Does your boss have the power to give you more time off, cut you some slack on a project, or temporarily reassign some of your work to someone else? If so, then bring up your dilemma to them.

But don’t waste capital on asking for something you know they can’t provide. If your boss doesn’t have the ability to make changes that would make things easier for you, there’s probably little point in telling them what’s going on.

3. Is it affecting your work?

A good manager wants to know what’s troubling you when it’s affecting your performance. If they don’t know the reasons, they might think you’re slacking, losing interest in the job, or doing poorly on purpose. Knowing there’s something else going on is useful information that can help them adjust how they manage their team.

So if this issue is directly or indirectly impacting what you do on a day-to-day basis at work, speak up! Even just telling your boss that you’re aware that your work hasn’t been up to scratch is going to be welcome news: it shows you’re paying attention and taking responsibility. And if you’ve got a plan for fixing it, even better!

But if you’re able to compartmentalize, are still getting everything done, and are meeting your targets or deadlines, it doesn’t make sense to tell your boss. Talk to your therapist or a friend instead!

4. What’s your boss really like?

Having boundaries at work is important, but if your boss has a track record of being nonjudgmental about employees’ personal problems, it’s probably OK to talk about what’s going on. People who are particularly close with their managers may find that their boss is someone they can lean on (and receive mentorship from) in times of need.

If your relationship is a little less clear, consider this: How much do you know about them and their life outside of work? If it’s a lot, it’s most likely acceptable to go ahead and share your own issue.

But if your boss has never disclosed anything about their personal life or expressed interest in learning about anyone else’s, then it’s a safe bet they’re not interested in hearing about yours.

Another thing to consider is how trustworthy they are, especially if you’re looking to keep your personal problem under wraps. If your boss knows how to be discreet, then consider sharing. But if they’ve dished personal information about your colleagues to you or others before, don’t take a chance on them spreading your business all over the office—better keep it to yourself or confide in someone else, such as a colleague, another leader, or HR.

5. How much detail should you share?

So let’s say you’ve decided to talk to your boss. How much detail should you go into? In general, you’ll want to let them know that you’re dealing with something and may need to work out some accommodations. Whatever else you provide will depend on what you’re comfortable with and what kind of boss-employee relationship you have.

Say your problem is health related—a chronic illness or something that’s taking significant time to resolve. You could share that you’re undergoing treatment and mention that you may be less energetic than usual (or whatever the impact will be on your work) and ask for some flexibility to accommodate doctor appointments or extended deadlines for assignments. But it’s not necessary (or legally obligatory) to share the details of your health and treatments as long as they’re not relevant to your work performance.

Take another more trivial example: “My boyfriend just broke up with me, so I’m a little distracted today. But I’m dealing with it and I’ll have that project to you by the end of the week.” Be transparent, but focus less on the specifics and more on how it may affect your work and your team. Realistically, your boss doesn’t want to hear all about how exactly your breakup went and what’s happening in the aftermath.

Telling your boss about your personal problem can often make you feel better—after all, it helps to get it out in the open. But unless the circumstances are right, that effect can be short-lived. It’s essential to consider the larger ramifications. Making sure that telling them will both help you out in the short-term and won’t be held against you in the long-term is the most important thing to consider before you confide in them.

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