Twelve years ago today, my friend Julia dropped off a Winnie the Pooh coloring book, a 64-pack of Crayolas, and a note that coloring has been shown to relieve stress. Hurricane Katrina had just made landfall and meteorologists were talking about my beloved hometown becoming the lost city of Atlantis. I spent the next week in my Dallas apartment struggling to get in touch with loved ones, watching the news, crying and coloring.
Today, my Texan friends who are away from home are similarly hurting as they continue to watch the storm’s impact unfold from afar. Being away from your loved ones in the midst of hardship can be profoundly difficult and isolating, whether Houston is your hometown or you or your community are hurting from some other challenge.
Trying to keep your head up – and remain resilient in the midst of tragedy – is challenging, especially if you’re expected to stay focused and motivated at work.
Here are three pieces of advice on navigating emotional hardship on the job that have stayed with me in the in the twelve years since Katrina.
1) Remember, your feelings are valid.
If your community is suffering from loss, you may have feelings of "survivor guilt," which make it even more difficult to focus on that conference call or team meeting.
I vividly recall how hard it was to be apart from loved ones who were hurting and to watch my city flood from 500 miles away. In addition to a profound sense of loss and shock, I struggled with feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and guilt.
When your own experience of a situation is less severe than that of others, it can feel like you’re not entitled to your feelings of hardship. Whatever feelings you're experiencing right now are real and valid. And, all those feelings can make it difficult to focus on your other responsibilities.
You may feel guilty for being a “bad employee” and being distracted at work and then guilty for being a “bad daughter/Texan/friend” in those rare moments when you have a burst of productivity and forget it all.
While we often consider feeling guilty an indication that we’ve done something wrong, leadership coach Rebecca Aced-Molina says, “Guilt gets a really bad rap. It’s a normal human response.”
When it comes to survivor’s guilt, she says, “It means you’re empathizing with other people’s pain. You recognize that your situation is pretty good as compared with someone else’s.” That’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to your own experience.
As it pertains to being distracted, for a little while, that’s ok too.
2) Pace yourself at work.
When you’re grieving and fielding calls from loved ones, you can’t expect to perform at maximum efficiency at work.
Aced-Molina notes that we don’t have a separate professional self (who deals with business) and a personal self (who deals with everything else). “More companies are recognizing it’s not in their best interest to ask people to compartmentalize.” Our regular life doesn’t go away just because we’re at our desks.
If you’re comfortable talking with your boss or team about the hardship, you may be able to shift your hours or projects in order to grieve or be with family. Whether or not you raise it with your employer, be gentle with yourself about what’s realistic to accomplish.
Aced-Molina encourages clients to take the long view. Even outside of a major tragedy, she says, “There are natural ebbs and flows in the cycle of productivity. This may be one of the moments when you’re less productive and not at your best. That’s ok.” Just because you’re less productive today doesn’t mean you won’t be highly effective in the future.
For now, figure out what projects you can focus on that are less emotionally and intellectually taxing, like catching up on the latest industry research rather than generating new content.
3) Engage and grieve in the way that’s right for you.
In the months that followed Katrina, I planned a hurricane benefit concert featuring my favorite Louisiana band. This was a key coping strategy. For me, it was important to channel my profound sadness and isolation into something very public that built a sense of community and resilience.
When you work full time, it can be hard to find the time to engage and to grieve. If you want to take action following Harvey’s destruction, you can do a lot from your desk. Encourage friends to donate to your favorite local charity or start a fund for a loved one who lost everything. Plan an event or maybe just call your grandfather. There’s no one right way to respond to these hardships, but remember, small actions matter and can help you recover.
Although Julia and I are no longer in regular contact, every few years I look her up and send a note of gratitude for what remains one of the most meaningful and important gifts I’ve ever received. It’s those moments of meaningful human connection that got me through to a place of resilience. And my life – and work – are better off for it.