A “personal issue” is something that influences your life outside work or school, such as health, money, or family. They are often things that are unique to us, that our coworkers or classmates may not know about. Personal issues can be single life-altering events: like finding out you’re pregnant, or prolonged issues, such as depression.
When dealing with personal issues, your work environment matters profoundly. An employer’s understanding of an individual's personal issues that leads with compassion and dignity, and is aligned with individual honesty and responsibility, is the bedrock of strong workplace relationships and positive working cultures. The employer and the employee both have the responsibility to make this kind of work environment a reality.
Employers have a responsibility to support their employees. The best HR departments know exactly how to support staff: from offering grief counseling after the loss of a loved one to advocating for staff during complex medical and crisis situations. In the absence of that support, employees can seek advice from trusted co-workers, leaders and unions.
Leadership should check one another, ensuring they are not making excuses not to help an employee, and considering their motivations and if they uphold current power systems and privileges. Not every employer is able to dole out days of paid leave if an employee's family member falls ill, but all employers can sit down with employees and hash out a plan for changed capacity. Employers have a responsibility to consider the wellbeing of their employees, the morale of the workplace, and the reputation of their organization.
Employees have a responsibility to notify their workplace when certain life-altering events happen. They need to share the information necessary for the employer to plan for the employee’s absence or their changed capacity. Employees should also put in work (or ask friends/family to help if their capacity has been diminished) to understand the rules, policies, laws, benefits and support available to them through their place of employment. Employees get to choose how to handle and approach life events — their levels of privacy, desired support and trust in the system — but some base level of communication related to changed capacity is necessary.
Below are some things to keep in mind when dealing with common personal issues at work.
Planned or unplanned, finding out you’re pregnant can be terrifying so taking time to slow down will help you handle the news at work. It may feel like everything is moving at lightning speed, but you have time to do your research, consult with coworkers who have gone through the same thing and sit down with your employer when you are ready.
Remember that taking care of yourself is more important than giving nine months' notice of maternity leave or avoiding hurting someone else’s feelings. Discuss your benefits and make a plan with your employer. They may also have resources or know where you can find local classes on how to deal with pregnancy symptoms to help you keep up your capacity at work or offer telecommuting for those days when morning sickness gets you down.
It took me years to “come out” at work and you are by no means obligated to talk about sexuality or genitalia at work. If you do “pass” or are assumed as straight or cis and want to come out at work, make sure to do it in a way that puts you in the least amount of danger. People are still physically harmed in the U.S. for being queer, especially for being trans, and even in “queer-friendly” work environments, some people will treat you differently, and this can affect you in hard-to-predict ways.
Consider setting up a few therapy or counseling sessions for right before and after coming out at work and tell a friend outside of work what you are planning to do. A counselor or friend can also help you make a plan that is catered to your situation to ensure you come out in a way that feels right and that you are able to move forward afterward.
You have legal rights when it comes to personal health and work. Researching your rights and specific work benefits before you talk to HR will help you get a plan on the table quickly. In some states, large employers are required to provide paid time off for serious medical conditions, and many employers country-wide have employee assistance programs for all kinds of things, look yours up. If you aren’t comfortable speaking to your supervisor or coworkers about your health, you can request that HR or even a doctor do it for you. A therapist or support group catered to your specific health issue may also be a good place to seek guidance on how to focus on other things, like work, when you are struggling with something so scary.
Know your legal rights (such as the federal FMLA program), and your specific work benefits: some employers provide paid time off to take care of sick family members. This is also a good time to consider legal relationships. If your partner is sick and you are not married, marriage could provide you additional rights, if you have not been granted your parents’ power of attorney, consider if it makes sense. Make a plan with your boss and HR department that addresses time off (paid and unpaid), benefits, remote work, emergencies, and expectations on both sides so that you can be on the same page and feel you have space both to take care of your family member, and do your work.
If you aren’t being paid enough, your financial issues are work-related and you need to speak to a union representative. If you are being paid well, but you have a sudden large expense such as a medical bill, your financial stress is a “personal issue” but still likely to impact you at work. Consider making a budget that factors in as much detail as possible, including paying back big expenses over time. A friend of mine factors parking tickets into her budget so when she gets them it doesn’t stress her out. Little things can do a lot to help us manage stress. If you are spending a lot of money on fuel, consider approaching your supervisor about telecommuting part-time.
Legal issues, such as divorce, will most likely require changes to your file at work. As with other “personal issues,” take your time with this and make sure you have a communication strategy to help you decide who to communicate with, when and how. If you aren’t close with your coworkers, consider keeping your legal issues to yourself. Chances are, if you overshare, your workmates won’t be able to give you the support you need, and you will end up feeling like your issues are following you.
Some personal issues, such as illness, can theoretically affect anyone. Others, such as pregnancy, are reserved for a certain part of the population. When it comes to these latter “personal issues” the phrase has a lot of baggage: gendered, raced, classed, baggage. Many of the struggles that people of marginalized identities must face in the U.S. — labor around pregnancy and uneven child-care responsibilities, mental health issues related to discrimination, family financial struggles, disabilities, etc. — have historically been deemed “personal issues” despite their intimate reliance on social systems and identity politics.
From sexual harassment to racial discrimination or transphobia, the ways that people can be burdened due to society’s reaction to their identity are endless and this does not disappear at work. When it is overt in the workplace: like your boss touching you inappropriately, it is a “work-related issue” and hopefully involves reporting mechanisms. However, when it is covert — like your white boss making positive comments about a racist politician, or forgetting the event venue isn’t accessible — the hurt or discrimination you may feel, or the more extreme emotional response that may be triggered (anger flashes, panic attacks, depressive episodes, etc.), are systemic “personal issues.”
When people have personal issues that are woven into the workplace organizational structure or culture, such as systemic personal issues, these become the responsibility of the employer to address When staff of color, LGBTQ staff, women, differently-abled staff, etc. experience disparate treatment from other staff or leaders, or just have days when they are especially tired from dealing with the world, it’s the organization’s responsibility to understand, listen and act.
If the workplace has a culture of looking the other way, or condoning discrimination by inaction, systemic personal issues can unfairly burden certain employees and breed an unhealthy and unequal work environment.