A reader writes:

I don’t know how to deal with my broken heart at work.

When you are ill, you can take sick leave. When you are bereaved, you can take compassionate leave. It seems a break-up doesn’t suit either criteria, and I can’t help but feel I’m supposed to Pull Myself Together. It also feels somehow unprofessional to even raise it with a colleague, like it is some kind of high school problem that comes across as unprofessional.

I have been in an on-again off-again relationship for a year. It caused huge anxiety in my previous job over the summer, to the point where there were times I just needed to leave the office and go home. I was luckily in a flexible situation where I could. It didn’t help that I couldn’t tell anyone there though what was going on.

I am in a brand new job with very friendly people, and I want to be successful there. Days before I started, the relationship properly ended. All week I have found myself in meetings with my mind wandering to what text messages I want to write to my ex, and crying on my lunch break away from the office. I am in a daze.

I am pulling it together as I want to make a good impression, but my question is whether it is ever possible to really tell colleagues that you are going through a break-up and work may slide because of it, or that you may even need time off? This is not a separation or a divorce, nor did we even live together, and it feels as if it falls outside of colleagues’ compassion. Also, for the sake of any gender bias, I am a man.

I’m sorry you’re doing through this! Break-ups suck.

If you’d been at your job for a while and were a known quantity, there would be room for explaining to the people you work most closely with (or maybe just your boss) that you were going through a difficult personal situation, and that if they noticed you seeming off, that’s why.

But you wouldn’t want to say that your work may slide because of it. That’s not usually a thing that people are delighted to hear or leeway that you should expect to have in all but the most extreme situations. But you could frame it as “if you notice me seeming distracted or off, this is why.”

Whether or not to specify that it’s a break-up (as opposed to just a difficult personal situation) depends on how much you’re comfortable sharing … but it also depends a bit on context about the relationship itself. People aren’t likely to give you the same leeway and understanding for the break-up of a six-month relationship as they are for a divorce after a long marriage.

A year … well, a year is a little closer to the six-month end of that spectrum (and to be frank, that’s especially true of a year where things were on and off and full of what sounds like drama). That’s not to say that a break-up after a year can’t be really painful, because of course it can. It’s just that your coworkers are likely to expect you to pull it together at work more than with longer relationships.

But as a new employee, the whole calculation is different. When you’re new, you’re not a known quantity, and it’s harder to ask for the type of slack you could get if you’d been there longer. A new person saying “I’m going through a break-up and it may affect my work” is going to worry colleagues in a way that it won’t when it comes from someone who’s been there several years and has a track record of excellent, conscientious work.

That’s not to say that there’s never any leeway for a new person in difficult personal circumstances. But the bar is higher — typically more like death or divorce. The break-up of a non-long-term relationship is more likely to be seen as something that really sucks and is a crappy thing to deal with while you’re also adjusting to a new job … but not something that you’d ask your workplace to accommodate.

If it would help, you could certainly take one or two sick or personal days if you have them, as long as you’ve been there at least a couple of months (and without naming the break-up as the reason). But I’d stay away from making the break-up a thing at work when people are still getting to know you and still forming opinions of your work. I’m sorry!

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