my bosses want to know how I’ll improve my performance … but I’m sleep deprived with a chronically ill child

A reader writes:

My two-year-old son has a chronic illness that requires weekly therapy, weight checks, and regular doctor visits. Not to mention the day to day toll of caring for him; we have to stay on our toes and respond to his body cues for his complicated care. The worst episodes happen at night and we live on less than 5-6 hours broken sleep a night. I am a litigation paralegal for a plaintiff firm (no billable requirement). My firm has been very understanding and allows me to take the time I need, etc.

I admit to being distracted and not performing at my best. Nothing major like blowing a deadline, but little things like not keeping up on filing, projects taking longer than they should, etc. Two mistakes last week (not getting a letter out as requested and forgetting about a phone call) caused the partners to call a meeting to address their concerns. They took it further than I think was necessary and told me I wasn’t invested, didn’t care and they don’t trust me. I admitted to them I am distracted and overwhelmed by my son’s care. But I certainly do care about my job. I am ashamed that I have lost their trust.

They want another meeting wherein I acknowledge my shortcomings and my plan to turn things around. I’m not sure what they need. I can’t cure my son (there is no cure). My plan is to acknowledge again that I’ve been distracted, overwhelmed and sleep deprived. Apologize and say we are trying to make major changes on the home front to give me relief. I also am talking to my doctor about medication for anxiety. Should I mention that? I don’t want to lose my job. In better times, I really like my job and right now, I can’t afford to lose it. What else can I say that lets them know I am going to do my best to improve?

I’m so sorry you’re struggling with this.

Here’s where your bosses are coming from: While it sounds like they’ve been understanding about your situation in the past, they also rely on you to get your job done, and to get it done in certain ways (i.e., at a certain speed, with a certain attention to detail, and so forth). If you’re not meeting the bar they need, they’re going to get worried — because they need that stuff handled.

What they’re looking for you now are signals that you received their message and that you’re taking it seriously and will be actively working to remedy the issues they raised. They’re looking to make sure that you’re not blowing off their concerns or minimizing them, and that you have both a commitment to tackle those issues and a realistic plan for doing that.

So, for instance, you might say something like this when you meet: “I appreciate you raising your concerns with me last week. I’m mortified that it was necessary. I heard you loud and clear, and I’m going to be working on some changes to address the issues you raised. To be honest, the situation at home has been interfering with my sleep and causing me a lot of stress. We’re going to make some major changes at home to give me some relief there, and I think that will help significantly. I’m also going to redouble my efforts to be vigilant about staying on top of things here. If there’s anything specific you’d like me to do in addition to this, I’m very open to hearing it, but I want to assure you that I take your concerns seriously and I’m going to be working hard to perform at the level you need from me.”

There’s no mention here of talking to your doctor about anxiety medication, because that’s more information than they need. They just need to know that you’re addressing this stuff in some credible way, and the wording above (or something similar) should accomplish that.

You might also check back in with them in, say, a month or so, because revisiting it shows that you did indeed take it seriously, that you care about how you’re doing, and that you’re not just hoping they’ll forget there was an issue. You could say at that point that you’ve been working to make changes, that the results have been ___, and that you want to check with them to see if they have continuing concerns or whether there’s anything else you should be doing. So few people take this step when they’ve been admonished, and it will reflect well on you if you do it … because it conveys, “I’m able to maturely discuss these issues without hiding from them, and I’m as interested in things working smoothly as you are.”

I hope this helps. Good luck, both with the job and at home!

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