How to Share a Personal Problem with Your Boss

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We all like to believe it’s possible to keep our work lives and personal lives separate, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case: sometimes problems at work keep us up at night, and sometimes personal problems at home can’t just be left behind when we walk through the office door. They can be the kind of problems that are so big that we have no choice but to go to our boss with them, whether it’s to ensure they know our work is only suffering temporarily or to request their understanding of our need for some time off.

Whatever your issue, and whatever your boss is like, this article will give you some advice on how to handle the situation. There are two key things to remember: you should never be embarrassed or ashamed of having to ask for help and that your boss is a person, too. Unless you’re scared of approaching them because they truly are a horrible person, you will likely find that you had no need to be nervous about confiding in them or about losing your job.

See Also: How to Keep Advancing Your Career

So, here are four simple steps to help you handle the subject:

1. What's the Problem?

If the issue is one that hasn’t already and isn’t going to affect your quality of work, then reconsider whether it really needs to be shared. Unless you’re in the kind of workplace where you all tell your boss everything, you shouldn’t be wasting your time or theirs telling them about the issues you’re having with your other half. Either keep it between you and your partner, or don’t take it further than your colleagues.

What you need to share or think you should share can depend on your age. Baby boomers are more likely to consider it unprofessional to share anything personal, according to Today, while Generation X share because they think it’s unethical not to share something that might affect the team and millennials share everything because Facebook has made that the normal thing to do. As for what you should share, it’s good to come clean if you have an illness that can be contagious, but you can otherwise usually rely on your own discretion.

The Family and Medical Leave Act outlines some situations in which you are eligible to take 12 or 26 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave:

  • The birth of a child
  • The adoption or fostering of a child
  • Needing to take care of a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
  • A serious health condition that affects your job performance
  • Any qualifying situation due to having a spouse or child in the military or other services

2. Finding the Right Time

While it’s better to do it sooner rather than later, and before it becomes a big problem, that doesn’t mean you should drop the bomb by bursting into your boss’ office while they’re in the middle of a meeting or busy stressing over a huge project with an approaching deadline. You can’t know when a day is a bad one for them, but you can choose a time when they’re less busy – and alone. You would probably rather not talk about it in front of anyone else, especially if it might spark gossip.

Try to choose a time of the week and a time of the day when things tend to be quieter and you’re less likely to be interrupted. Doing it at the beginning of the day could make for an awkward day, and doing it at a time when you’re usually at your busiest will prompt them to start the conversation by asking why you aren’t at your desk. Start things on the right foot by talking to your boss when neither of you are doing anything.

3. Location, Location, Location

It might seem obvious that you would do it in the privacy of your boss’ office rather than your cubicle, but what if somewhere else would be even better? Consider asking your boss if they can spare the time to go out for lunch with you, or even just a coffee. Wherever you choose, it should be a neutral place; never choose your home – or theirs, for that matter.

4. Having the Talk

You’ve decided on the right time for them: make sure it’s also the right time for you. Have you taken the time you need to relax and gather your thoughts so you don’t end up marching in and either breaking down crying or simply venting at them?

Try to look at it as a work presentation:

  • Keep it professional
  • Take time to prepare
  • Know what you’re going to say
  • Try to keep it to 30 minutes

When you think you’re ready, make sure you follow these points:

  • Start with "I have a problem" or "I need some help" rather than "You’re not going to like this, but..."
  • Be honest and brief. If you start with a brief explanation of the situation, you avoid sharing too much and they can ask for any extra information they want or need as the conversation progresses.
  • What do you need? Whether it’s a few days off, a lightened workload, a chat with someone from the Employee Assistance Program, or simply an understanding that there might be a temporary dip in the quality of your work, explain it succinctly. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
  • Let them know what ideas you’ve thought of to help things tick over in your absence: who could take over your tasks? What can wait until you get back? What is the one major thing that you hate to have to abandon but Jane and Tom can handle?
  • Don’t ask for advice. Even if you know they’ve been through a similar situation themselves, wait for them to offer advice rather than solicit it. Even if you’re friendly with them, they’re your boss – not your therapist.

Once you’ve had the talk, go back to your desk and try to continue with your work. If you’ve prepared well enough, you shouldn’t feel any need to go back in and add details, and neither should you. Before you get impatient, remember that while you may feel better for having offloaded your problems, you’ve just given your boss more to think about.

Whatever your situation or your reasons for being reluctant to go to your boss, remember that they really are just human, too; they just have different qualifications and different attitudes which means they’re "superior" to you, at least in title. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a horrible boss who really won’t care about what you’re going through – in which case you may have to simply commiserate with your colleagues – you should find yourself pleasantly surprised by how understanding they’ll be.

Have you ever had to bring a personal problem to your boss? Are you a boss who has had to help an employee with a problem? Share your advice in the comments section below.