Is there Space at Work for Heartache?

Updated: Nov 11, 2019




Right now, a very close friend of mine is going through a traumatic experience, and the impact on her health, family and mindset is harrowing. Just last week I sent her a text asking how she was feeling and her reply read: ‘angry, scared, tearful, lonely… but I go to work and smile.’ It struck me what a horrendous pressure this must create for her, and wondered how long she could sustain the pretence before something goes boom!


At Untapped, we often tell our clients we believe a person brings their whole self to work, and if there is something difficult happening at home, in their relationships, with their family or their health, then it goes without saying that it will seep into their professional performance and potentially cause mayhem. But it’s often far from easy opening up about personal heartache, and, understandably, there will be apprehension about sharing the chaotic details with a seemingly super competent boss, or colleagues who may not have said more to you than ‘good morning’ every day.





A couple of years ago I went through an experience that was so painful, I moved from hour to hour in a fug of numb grief which made me so distracted I couldn’t eat, talk to friends on the phone (texting was just possible) or concentrate for more than five minutes on a task. One day I drove to the supermarket to buy food and sat in the car park staring out of the car window before driving home again at 20 miles an hour, hot tears running down my face. Yet, even though breathing felt like a gargantuan task at that time, I still attempted to work. Was it due to financial necessity, the desire to appear to the world as though everything was normal, or the brief interruption it provided from the misery I was feeling? Probably a bit of all three, yet, when one of my managers suggested I step back from my role and take some time out for self care, the relief was immense.





Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, talks about ‘work-life integration’. Basically, she believes it’s impossible to separate the two, and so when they collide with, sometimes, catastrophic consequences, they need careful managing. And everyone deals with their own messiness in their own way. For some, work can bring a supportive stability, for others it’s an unbearable burden of presenting your ‘game face’. Certain people will be able to keep their emotions in check, choosing to share with those they feel they can trust; while quite a number of us will escape to the Ladies at regular intervals to talk ourselves down from the ledge and perhaps have a quiet blub in the cubicle.

But just because you’ve taken the gargantuan step of walking through the door of your company, in the hope that you can heave yourself to the end of the day without bawling in the team meeting, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily coping. How can being at work automatically switch off our feelings? We might be side-tracked for a while, but the nub of the pain is still festering inside. Adam Kay, author of the best-selling novel, This Is Going To Hurt, writes an essay about his experience as a doctor in It’s Not Ok To Feel Blue by Scarlett Curtis. Kay reveals: “Just because you wear scrubs you are still allowed to cry. It’s not a sign of weakness to feel overwhelmed or under appreciated.”




Support is the obvious answer. But what does that mean? In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book: A Manual For Heartache (Picador), she writes: “I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling with a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness.” With this in mind, I contact my friend again to tell her simply that I am thinking of her and hope she’s had a chance to ease the strain at work. She says she has managed to delegate a project to her deputy and secured a temporary plan to work from home. This feels like a positive shift and it makes me feel hopeful for her.


Yet, even though suffering is a deeply personal experience, there is one rule of thumb for all: it is crucial to put a level of self care in place. This could mean letting your boss know there is something going on or, like my friend, giving others more responsibility to ease the pressure, or seeing a counsellor, or taking time out… but trying to slog through the tsunami of trauma alone is just too hard. Acknowledging that you need support, and also that others might be in the same predicament, is often the first move towards survival.


No one coasts through life. That is a fact. And even those who appear shiny and sunny will experience periods of darkness. But it’s the people who have the courage to be open about their cracks and failures who tend to ultimately navigate a positive way forward. They are our true success stories.