Web Working Your Way Through a Personal Crisis

I’ve written previously about how I find it often more trouble than it is worth to take time off of work for vacations. But many of us in the first generation of web workers are part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” caring for kids and aging parents at the same time. The flexibility of web work to deal with a personal crisis may even be what attracted us to it. So sometimes, taking time off is unavoidable, and not for fun reasons. At those times, web work has both distinct advantages, and disadvantages. Being aware of what they are can make your management of both your personal crisis and your work better.

In the past 18 months, I’ve had to take time off of work for a variety of not-so-fun reasons. There’s been emergency trips to visit sick relatives, funeral travel, surgery for my mom, and surgery of my own. Plus, although we’ve been fortunate to not have serious disruptions from tropical weather here recently, that has happened before and will certainly happen again.

Here’s the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences about how being a web worker affects you during a personal crisis.

Good: Have Laptop, Will Travel

Being able to do your work via the web means you can probably pack it up and be productive (at least somewhat) while dealing with your crisis. If you have to travel, you don’t have to wrap everything up before you can run out the door. You can arrange for your time off after you’ve already left, or even get some work done anywhere that you need to be.

Many medical facilities even have Wi-Fi now for families to use while visiting with patients. Pulling out your laptop to do some work in these situations may sound more insensitive than it really is. Often patients feel they have to entertain people who are sitting with them. Working on a laptop can provide the perfect excuse to disengage yourself so the patient can rest or have some privacy, and it can alleviate a patient’s guilt over pulling you away from your usual routine if they see you are still being productive. If you are part of a group of visitors, excusing yourself to work elsewhere can be a good way to provide someone a private visit with the patient.

Good: Routine Is Therapeutic

A crisis by its very nature is stressful. Routine is comforting to most people. The familiar activity of being able to maintain at least some of your normal work routine via the web (even if it’s just checking and answering work email) can be a very helpful coping mechanism when something stressful is happening. The distraction of work can also be very helpful to some people by giving them something else besides their crisis situation to focus on for awhile.

Good: Reducing the Post-crisis Disaster

One of the reasons that I wrote that I don’t like to take vacations is that they are too much work to prepare for and catch up from. The same is true of a crisis break, but since it often isn’t planned, the work would all be done by playing catch-up. If you can do some of that work during the crisis itself, your post-crisis work stress will be reduced.

Bad: Working Under Stress

Remember that point about how a crisis is stressful? While a web worker may have the technical ability to work during a crisis, you need to be aware that your mental ability to do so may be compromised due to extreme stress. The quality of your work may not be up to your usual standards. You may make bad decisions that you later regret. You may say (or type) things that you normally wouldn’t because you are feeling emotional. Being aware of your limitations while working under stress is important. Postpone things that you aren’t sure you can handle correctly at that time until later.

One important limitation to consider: If the crisis is your own medical situation, and there are heavy medications involved, you may want to consider whether you should limit your phone and laptop use to playing Farmville. WWI (working while impaired) could cost you your reputation, a client, or your job if you aren’t careful.

Bad: Everyone Knows Your (Personal) Business

Even if you are working during it, a crisis will still mean some change in your capacity or schedule to do your work. This will need to be explained, especially to any associates and clients who are affected. In a traditional corporate environment, someone else would probably just step in for you, explain that you are on medical or family leave, and take care of business. But especially if you are freelancer, you will have to do the explaining yourself and probably to some people who feel they know you well enough to be concerned. Explanations will need to be somewhat specific (“My grandmother is very ill”) and as a result, everyone ends up knowing your personal business. This also makes it harder to use work as an escape from stress since well-meaning concerned co-workers may ask how you are coping.

Bad: Pressure to Limit Time Off

Web workers can feel pressure from both within and without to limit time off in a crisis situation. Freelancers feel financial pressure because they aren’t getting paid, and may be incurring unusual expenses as well. There’s also concern that clients may look elsewhere if put off too long. Outside pressure can come from clients who think that since you web work (and probably from home) that you can do more during a crisis than is really practical or wise. Juggling these needs can make it tempting to limit your time away. Make sure you take what you truly need.

The flexibility of web work can be wonderful in a crisis but it has pitfalls too. Being aware of them means being able to navigate your work through a personal crisis as smoothly as possible.

Has being a web worker helped you navigate a personal crisis?