Stuff happens: How to handle personal problems at work

Written by: Karl Sakas

In books and movies, successful spies don’t have friends, families, or hobbies—because it’s a lot easier to focus on your job when you have no personal life.

In the real world, you have friends, a family, and hobbies. That makes things messy—your kids get sick, your dog needs to go to the vet, someone has to meet the plumber because the water heater broke, and your parents need help around the house.

It’s not about the thing happening—it’s about how you react. And how you plan ahead.

Handling personal problems at work

Need to handle personal problems at work? Here’s what to do when something goes wrong, when you’d rather be running your agency.

Adjust your plans. If you’re out of commission, you need to reschedule meetings, shift deadlines, and follow up with people. You’re going to need to manage expectations—it’s OK to reach out now and say you’ll have a bigger update in a few days.

Set new, reasonable goals. Accept that you can’t perform at your usual 100%. Small goals are important—you want to see regular progress.

Ask your team for help. The point of having an agency is that you have a team. Ask for help. You help them when things come up, right? Let them help you. But remember, delegation doesn’t mean they can read your mind—let them know what you need.

Be kind to others. You’re under stress and you’re more likely to snap at people. Try to be nice. If you can’t, apologize and figure out how to keep that from happening again. Saying thank you is free, but it doesn’t work if you have an anger management problem.

Take care of yourself. Schedule some downtime when it feels like you can afford it the least. Otherwise, you’re going to snap. It’s easy to eat fast food and junk food—I’ve been there. Try to balance it with at least some fresh options. If you slip up, it’s OK—it’s temporary. Some people like working out to reduce their stress. I like scheduling a massage, catching up with a friend, watching Netflix, or reading.

Accept that stuff happens. My water heater died in the middle of an ice storm. A client’s dog had $12,000 in vet bills one year. A friend’s dad went to the hospital with a cardiac issue. It happened—you can’t make it un-happen.

How to prepare for the future

On a Dover Harbor train trip several years ago, our air conditioning died in Iowa. If we couldn’t fix the problem, we’d risk having to abort the trip and pay to fly the passengers home. Our onboard mechanic tracked down an A/C repairman in Chicago to fix the system—and he tipped him $100 for the successful emergency repair. As our mechanic explained to me, “That wasn’t for this time… that was for next time.”

If something hasn’t happened to you yet, here are some things you can do now to lessen the blow.

Plan ahead. Just as your agency builds a stable of freelancers to help when projects come in, now’s the time to line up people to help in your personal life. That includes people to help around the house, around the office, and in life in general. Your parents are having trouble around the house and they don’t live nearby? Recruit a trustworthy handyman before you need help. Haven’t found a new veterinarian since you moved? Do it now before your cat eats something shiny and expensive. Don’t have a backup babysitter yet? Hire them now, before you’re calling with an emergency.

Recruit an assistant. You shouldn’t be the only person with access to your calendar, your contacts list, your project communications, and other assets. If you can’t afford a full-time assistant, look into hiring a virtual assistant (VA) who helps on an hourly basis. If you don’t have an assistant doing this, then at least delegate access to 1-2 people on your team. You don’t want to be the single point of failure.

Pay attention to patterns. People are patient when a problem comes up once. If you keep making excuses the seventh time it happens, they won’t be so patient any more. Do you keep having the same problems over and over again? Maybe it’s time to fix the cause instead of the symptoms. I can help.

Monitor your stress. Running a business comes with varying levels of stress—from high to low. If you find you’re always in “high stress” mode, it’s going to be harder to handle temporary problems because you’re already at your limit.

Find a therapist now. I’m a fan of therapy as a way to deal with recurring problems. Most people can benefit from at least a few sessions with a therapist. It can take a while—it’s important to find someone who’s a good fit for you, which can mean meeting with 2-3 people if the first person isn’t the right match. All things being equal, it’s easier to do this before you’re in crisis.

Help your team. Keep an eye out for recurring problems among your team, since their unmanaged personal problems will surely affect their work. You may not be able to afford an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a help-with-their errands concierge service for your employees, but you can at least monitor things and offer assistance when you can.

Applying this to your agency

My advice on how to handle personal problems focuses on temporary, day-to-day issues. If you have long-term health issues—or are caring for someone who has long-term issues—you’re going to need to restructure things altogether. Reach out to a medical or counseling professional for help—that’s beyond the scope of the advice here.

Have you had to handle personal problems while running your agency, either your own or an employee’s? How did it go?

Question: What’s worked for you in handling personal problems?


Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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