Things aren’t great at home.
You’re not getting along. The way he treats you is awful at times.
Maybe a miracle will happen and he’ll turn back into the lovely guy you know he can be, but right now? Your relationship is stressing you out. A LOT.
You’re a pile of nerves when you get to work. At least work gives you a break from everything. You can lose yourself in your job.
But your concentration isn’t always there. You’re not able to focus as easily.
You’re trying to hide the fact that you’ve got personal problems going on, but covering it up is wearing you out.
You’re exhausted from it all. And you can’t talk to anyone at work about it, because you know it will change how they think about you.
So what do you do?
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this question. I’ve wondered if the toxic relationships I’ve been in have had a permanent impact on me.
It knocks you, when your personal life is unstable. You’re spending so much emotional energy just getting through each day that you don’t have any left for career goals.
A few weeks ago, I decided to put out feelers on LinkedIn to see if anyone could help me understand the way our relationships at home affect our performance at work.
And the lovely and amazing Lisa Zarcone answered the call.
If you follow my show, you’ve met Lisa before.
She’s spoken about her abusive childhood in her powerful memoir The Unspoken Truth. She’s an advocate for adult survivors of child abuse as well as young people and those struggling with mental health.
Lisa agreed to talk to me about what employers need to know about supporting struggling employees…
Strategies you can use when problems at home are threatening your work performance…
And whether it’s possible to rise to the highest level in your company or organization when you’re struggling with an abusive partner back at home.
This is a difficult topic. It can be intense. But we need to consider both how we can support others and be supported ourselves.
What You’ll Learn
Problems at home should stay at home.
That’s the rule.
The minute you walk through that door into your company building, you represent your company. You’re a professional. It’s not acceptable to let whatever is going on at home affect how you show up at work.
Is that even possible?
If something terrible happened to you that morning—you had an argument with your partner, and now you’re afraid to go home and face him—can you wall off those emotions and put on a fake smile and act like nothing happened?
“People are really good, at times, of blocking it out to a point and putting their game face on, but you can only do that for so long,” Lisa says, “and then it wears you down.”
We aren’t robots. We have feelings. Even with the best of intentions, the stress from home leaks into the way we work.
A useful way of thinking about how difficult relationships affect us even when we’re at work is the concept of bandwidth.
We all have a limited amount of “mental space” in our brains.
The more things you have on your mind, the more things you’re worrying about, the less mental space you have for the task at hand.
Having low bandwidth can affect your ability to learn and perform at your best.
Lisa experienced this herself as a child.
“As a child and young adult, I had abuse in the home,” she says. “Then I stepped into school, and I’m supposed to be this avid little learner and doing my thing. But that was farthest from the case. I struggled tremendously with comprehension and learning and trying to keep myself focused.”
Many things can affect our bandwidth:
Food insecurity, health issues, caretaking… anything that consumes a great deal of your energy and focus.
“As an adult, going through problems at home and health issues or things happening… it’s going to affect you in some way, shape, or form,” Lisa says.
“And it does come out in your performance, and that is something that should be talked about.”
The Culture of Silence at Work
But isn’t low bandwidth your problem?
Your employer isn’t responsible for your personal problems.
If you can’t keep your focus on work because of issues at home, then it’s your responsibility to sort it out.
That perspective is one reason why so few employees feel comfortable opening up at work.
They need extra help and support, but they won’t ask for it, because they can’t explain why they need it.
“People spend a lot of time at work,” Lisa says. “They should be able to feel safe enough to say if something is wrong, if they’re having a struggle. But there’s still that taboo. If you say it, then you’re almost like a marked person. It shouldn’t be that way.”
No one wants to be the “difficult employee” or the “drama queen.”
No one wants to ask for extra accommodations to be made for them, no matter how much they may need it.
We want to be just like everyone else. We want to show up, do our job, and not stand out for the wrong reasons.
The Wrong Kind of Support
Once your personal life becomes office gossip, your coworkers don’t always treat you the same.
There are still so many misconceptions about abusive relationships, like the belief that you should just leave if he’s treating you badly, and if you don’t it’s your fault.
“What people don’t realize is that, when you are involved in an abusive relationship … it’s not that easy just to get out,” Lisa says, “because you’ve been beaten down emotionally. You’ve been beaten down mentally for so long that it takes away your self-esteem, your courage… You have to fight really hard to get it back.”
So the coworker who tells you, after you’ve mustered up the courage to share, “Why don’t you just leave, then?” isn’t really supporting you at all.
They’re trying to wave a magic wand to fix your problem, when what’s needed is a different level of support.
“But that’s very hard for people to do, and in the workplace it’s even harder,” Lisa says, “because everybody’s trying to perform and outdo and shine. And the boss wants to see everybody doing their thing; they don’t want to hear about problems.”
The moment you walk through that door into work, “there’s no wiggle room for error. There’s no wiggle room for emotion. And that’s really not fair, because that’s not how life is.”
There are ways to mitigate the impact of your home life on work.
For Lisa, journaling was a godsend.
She used journaling at home to release what was going on for her, and she found herself doing it sometimes at work.
She’d be having a hard time, and she’d take a quick minute to jot some things down that she was feeling, then go back to work.
She found it helpful, because “in the moment of anxiety and stress, of feeling that heaviness, I did something for myself.”
She also found it helpful to take a movement break. She’d get up from her desk and go do something. It would give her a moment to breathe and regroup.
She’d like to see those breaks incorporated into the workplace.
“If someone’s having a struggle, let them have a moment,” she says. Just a moment to breathe, regroup, and get back into it.
The Long-Term Impact on Your Career
We know that abusive relationships have a long-term impact on mental health.
But what’s not been studied is the way those relationships affect your professional life.
Lisa points to the examples of sports stars who are at the top of their game when all of a sudden a news story breaks about their self-destructive behavior. Often, that self-destruction has roots in the past.
Abuse eats away at your self-esteem and self-confidence.
“If you’re always second-guessing yourself and never feeling good enough, that’s going to impact you,” she explains.
As your company asks more of you, as your work goal require you to step up, you can falter.
Lisa recommends visualization.
“Visualize where you want to be. Visualize how you’re going to get there, and take it step by step. Don’t be afraid to ask for support along the way.”
And if your career goal is to rise all the way to the top and become CEO or lead your company, then you may need to consider whether your home situation will allow you to get there.
Sheryl Sandberg famously said that the most important career choice a woman makes is who she marries.
To succeed in life, we need support at home.
We need a partner who builds us up, shares the load, and restores our confidence when we’re knocked back.
The Role of Management
What can managers and team leaders do to support employees who are struggling?
Lisa recommends erring on the side of compassion.
“A boss or a manager could say pull someone aside and say, ‘Hey, I see something’s going on. You’re not yourself. Is there anything we can do for you? Is there anything you want to share?’
“And then it at least opens that door for the person. And they have the right not to share, because, of course, people are afraid they’re going to lose their job—it always comes down to that.”
Over time, if a manager consistently shows compassion and builds rapport with their employees, it opens up a space for people to feel more comfortable admitting what is going on and how it’s affecting them at work.
Learn More about Lisa
Lisa discusses her own personal experience from abuse to healing in her memoir The Unspoken Truth.
She’s currently writing her second book about her mother’s life.
To find out more about Lisa’s advocacy work and be the first to know when her new book is published, visit her website..
Embrace the journey in life, because we never know what’s going to be thrown at us, and our paths are not always easy.”
Lisa is an author, public speaker, and child & mental health advocate. Her memoir The Unspoken Truth lifts the silence about child abuse. Lisa has a passion for working with those who have mental illness. What her past has taught her about mental illness cannot be read in a textbook. Learn more about Lisa’s work.