6 Ways to Stay Focused at Work During a Difficult Life Change

UPDATED: October 10, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 13, 2023
Blonde woman looking out a window pensively showing how to stay motivated at work during difficult times

After my second baby was born sick and diagnosed with multiple disabilities, I spent the summer after his birth in the NICU. Eventually, he was discharged from the hospital and I went back to work. I wanted to be at work. But once I got there, I struggled to focus. I worried about my son’s health. I worried about his future and how we would adapt our lives to properly include him. And I wanted to know how to better manage that shift in balance.

Kacy Fleming, head of global wellbeing for Takeda, explains that, even on a typical day, we feel like we aren’t giving any part of our lives enough attention. “The concept of balance doesn’t exist. It’s never 50-50,” she explains. “And that’s so much more prevalent when you’re dealing with your own incident—very real things that happen in the life of every human.”

Whether you are going through a divorce, became a caregiver to a family member, recently dealt with the death of a loved one or had another significant life event, here are some things you can do to thrive in both your professional and personal lives despite your hardship.

1. Bring in reinforcements

Finding a community of help is essential, but first, you have to recognize that you need the help. “With respect to any kind of crisis that might have some stigma associated with it, like divorce or mental illness or even physical illnesses, certain kinds are seen, even implicitly, as though there’s something wrong with you, in terms of your character,” says Stew Friedman, emeritus professor of management practice at The Wharton School and co-author of Parents Who Lead. But once we admit that we need support, we’re better able to move forward.

“It’s essential to recognize that you can’t do it on your own. No one does,” Friedman says. “Finding help in all areas of your life can take the load off: help with the household, help with other children, help with counseling from a good therapist. All can relieve you when life becomes too much.”

When my son was first born, I found it hard to admit I needed help. Eventually, talk therapy, a rotation of meals from friends and leaning on my children’s caregivers to create a community helped me adjust and gain my footing at work.

2. Prioritize what’s most important 

When you have something new or significant happen in your life, one thing you can do is review everything you have on your plate. “Take stock of your life inventory and your work inventory,” Fleming suggests. Once you know what you are managing, you can prioritize the crucial items and make sure to get those done first. “Focus on what’s important. This will help you create space for yourself,” Fleming adds.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you are managing more than you are used to. After my son was born, I had a hard time keeping up with the constant information from doctors and therapists. But figuring out what I had to get done and categorizing what was most important helped me focus.

3. Ask for flexibility

Some companies may offer flexible work arrangements or time off when an employee has a major life change. Fleming suggests we use these options when necessary. “It’s easy to say [taking] leave is for other people, but leave is there if we need it and yet, for some reason, when we take advantage of it, we punish ourselves,” Fleming says. “However you handle it, by saying, ‘I really need x, y and z now to be productive’ shows that you are taking control of your life.”

4. Take care of yourself

For many people, work is a source of comfort when life gets hard. It’s distracting. But throwing yourself into your work can cause other health-related issues.

“It’s easy to overlook yourself when you’re in the maelstrom in a crisis,” Friedman notes, “but it’s been well documented that you need to put the air mask on yourself first before you can take care of anything—or anyone—else.” 

The common term is self-care, but Fleming feels like that phrase means you should be doing something. “Exercising, making yourself eat well or even getting yourself to a salon takes effort. Sometimes taking care of yourself can mean doing nothing at all.

Mindlessly binge-watching a show, squeezing in a nap or just sitting down to breathe really helped me gather strength on days when I felt drained.

5. Be forthcoming

“When your life undergoes a painful shift, well-meaning colleagues tend to reinforce your sense of disconnect by talking only about your worry or sorrow,” says Jill Smolowe, a grief coach and author of Four Funerals and a Wedding. “Often, it’s better for your head—and your heart—to try to connect to subjects that distract you. Ask your colleagues about their families, their vacations or what they’re reading. Even a few minutes of respite can be replenishing.”

Whether you are someone who prefers to talk about your concerns or be distracted at work, one of Smolowe’s favorite pieces of advice is, “Tell people what you need. They’re not mind readers.”

6. Pay it forward

Some life experiences change us forever. But using those experiences for good, like helping others in a similar situation or fundraising for a cause, can allow us to feel productive and in control. They also teach us valuable skills that benefit us at work.

“It’s taking what you know—your life experience, your talents, your particular passions, wherever they derive from—and somehow, through some alchemy in your own mind and soul, you convert that into action that is intended to help other people,” Friedman says. “This is what the most admired leaders do, in all spheres of life.”

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