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How To Get Through The Workday When You’re In Pain

Last week was a horrific week. Things are not okay.

When things aren’t okay – whether it’s work-related or not – it can be hard to stay focused and productive. Case in point: I think of the video of a policeman shooting and killing Philando Castile in front of a four-year-old last Wednesday. I think of my own four-year-old son and about those who are grieving because of senseless deaths and the repeated imagery shown online and by the media. Many of us are grieving. Yet work and other responsibilities aren’t suddenly canceled, which leaves me and many others with the question: Now what?

As a Black woman who is a mother, wife, career coach, and entrepreneur, I know I have to be a leader. I have to stay strong and put on my bravest face. But we all also need to know when to be vulnerable, to ask for or give help, and to lift each other up. This is true in our personal spaces and our offices, where we spend the majority of our waking hours.

Since we don’t all have a uniform experience, I’ve broken down some advice around getting through the workday for three different audiences: The person who is hurting, that person’s colleague, and those in charge of workplace culture.

If you’re the person experiencing hurt:

Be transparent.

Before we are employees, we are humans, and sometimes when you’re in pain, it’s important to open up and allow others to see your human side more than usual, too. You may have some colleagues you feel more comfortable opening up to than others, so choose your allies and be aware of office politics. Consider reaching out to someone you trust and saying something as simple as, “I’m coming to you because I need you (and your understanding) right now. Do you have five minutes to go for a walk?”

Value self-care.

Last Friday morning, I took 10 minutes to step back from my routine and meditate. There’s no shame in tapping out when you need time away — that’s part of what sick and personal days are there for. If you can’t take a full day, try to set aside at least an hour pre or post work for your tried-and-true self-care routine. Go for a run to give yourself time to think, connect with a friend or family member, binge-watch a TV show, or order your favorite takeout for dinner. Be good to yourself.

Put the less important stuff aside.

On days when your mind isn’t all there, it’s fair to assume you may not be able to focus and get as much done – and that your work might suffer as a result. Be aware of this and focus on determining your priorities. Don’t feel shame in saying to a colleague, “You’ve asked me to do three things today, and I can only get two done. Can I get the third to to you tomorrow morning? I’m having a tough time because of what happened, and I wouldn’t want to turn something in that wasn’t up to par.”

Know that not everyone will understand.

We all want to believe in humans’ capacity for kindness — and there is a lot of it out there. But there are also people who won’t sympathize or empathize with you, whether it’s because of their specific beliefs or differing priorities. If you run into this, consider what your response should be on a case-by-case basis. Added conflict at a time when you’re already struggling is often not productive. Depending on the situation, you may need to grit your teeth and push through your day, take that walk with someone who does understand, or tap into your organization’s HR contacts and employee support resources.

If your colleague is hurting:

Don’t make assumptions.

While individual people experience and process situations in different ways, there are sometimes overarching commonalities in specific groups’ experiences. But it can be hard to know until you ask. In asking someone how he or she is doing, keep it open-ended. No one is going to slap you in the face for expressing interest, and I often find that others simply want to know that they are cared for, in and out of the workplace. From there, listen. When Prince died, for example, some of the audience members I was presenting to shortly after shared that they didn’t know his music. It hurt (because I was grieving), but I didn’t scold or blame them; after the presentation, I sent them a playlist so they could understand his contributions (and his genius).

Give the nod to others.

You know the nod. It’s that gesture of acknowledgement. The nod can be subtle, but it can also say, ”I see you and support where you might be.” It doesn’t have to be a literal nod. It takes very little to send somebody a “virtual hug.” The other morning, I sent 10 texts saying, “I hope you’re okay.” They weren’t all to close friends – they were to people I thought might be suffering. I didn’t know exactly how each of these people felt, but I could still lead with empathy and understanding.

Do not be silent.

In many ways, this is an easy time to speak up. Our collective consciousness is piqued. You have the privilege to use your voice for something that matters, and doing so does not delete anything from you. Do you need to get up on a soapbox? Of course not. But you also shouldn’t only be speaking to the Black experience when Beyoncé drops Lemonade.

Maintain openness.

Posing a question is the first step. The second is being prepared for different responses, even those you didn’t necessarily expect. Also accept that grief changes – not just from person to person, but also from day to day. Keep asking, “How are you? Can I do anything? Do you want to talk about it?” Lean in to your humanity. Sometimes we really are more similar than you think.

If you work in HR or are involved in your company’s resources and culture:

Lead the charge.

It’s when we as humans don’t feel heard that we shut down. Give employees the opportunity to speak up by proactively reaching out or creating a platform. What resources can you make available? If you work at a school or university, are there counselors students can visit? Can you offer an open door yourself?

Here is one example of a company, Kapor Capital, taking action to support their employees last week. This can go a long way for people who are hurting. Employees are valuable for everything they bring with them to work. Make them aware that your company cares for their full selves.

Image by Selani Thomas

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