Heartbreak at work: dealing with a breakup at the office

Heartbreak at work: dealing with a breakup at the office

How do you mend a broken heart? Some of us are inclined to soldier through break-ups in silence. Others struggle to fight back tears at their desks. And some may not even show up to work at all. Everyone’s coping mechanism is unique—and helps us make it to the other side of our romantic woes. Welcome to the Jungle spoke to three professionals about how they managed to get through their working days after a relationship break-up.


The One who threw himself into his work

For James, who works as an engineering researcher at an American university, 2020 was certainly not the year for romance. Between the intense workload of his job and the stress of the pandemic, he met Monica on a dating app. Their relationship was short but intense—before they knew it, the pandemic led Monica to return to her home country for good. “It really was just that kind of decision to not do long distance, even though everything was going well,” he says. “It was a mutual decision reached after some discussion. I felt sad because there wasn’t anything intrinsically bad with the relationship.”

James was left with a heavy dose of heartbreak while working through a pivotal moment in his career—transitioning from a PhD student to a PhD candidate—during which he needed to confirm his research path and face a grilling from fellow academics. “The first few days were not productive whatsoever,” he said. “But once the term started, so did my classic coping mechanism—working hard when I want to distract myself.’”

Overwork can be a form of emotionally avoidant behaviour that experts say can increase stress and anxiety in the long term, but for James, the break-up came when he needed to focus most—and it helped him to achieve his professional goals. “I’m sure in some ways I was extra dedicated because I knew that this was a distraction to some degree. If I was in a relationship, I don’t think I could have done as good a job on my professorship. This term I’m really busy. I don’t have time to be sad and mope around, it has to be a focused time.”

“Some people drink a lot or do other things to distract themselves to cope, but I feel like if you’re just working, you are improving yourself. When you come out of it, eventually you become a richer person. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.” -James

James hasn’t necessarily given up on love, but he has made the difficult decision of prioritising his career. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t still love to be in a relationship, but I do think if we continued dating my work would have slipped a bit,” he says. “[When I was with Monica] I was very satisfied and happy in other facets of my life so I didn’t have this single-minded drive to achieve my goal, which is my research. There’s a silver lining—we broke up when I needed to have time alone. Sometimes you need to prioritise in ways that are kind of uncomfortable.”

James doesn’t see his increased dedication to his work as a negative way of coping with heartbreak. Instead, the step backwards in his love life became a big step forward for his professional life. “Some people drink a lot or do other things to distract themselves to cope, but I feel like if you’re just working, you are improving yourself. When you come out of it, eventually you become a richer person. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you crumble and then you have to do something to change your mentality. Sometimes it’s just getting a haircut. Sometimes you change yourself.”

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The One who confided in a colleague

Julia was living with her boyfriend of four years and working the night shift as a journalist in London. It was not the break-up itself that hit her hard, but the rocky end to their relationship. After she discovered her partner had been seeing one of his colleagues, their relationship went downhill. “We had a huge fight, but we ended up deciding to stay together. My ex-boyfriend was a bit of a cheat, and I kind of always knew it. Every day I woke up with a pit of anxiety in my stomach, knowing that he was going to work, to see her. And I was going to my work until 11pm. I couldn’t behave normally—I didn’t behave normally for about five months. It was all-consuming. I’d sit at my desk on my phone 24/7, or I’d wake up with my eyes swollen in the morning unable to go to work, because it was quite clear I’d been crying all evening.”

Julia’s emotional turmoil was obvious. “I couldn’t pay attention,” she says. “My work was suffering. I was missing stuff, I was making spelling errors, things weren’t in on time. I had meetings with my bosses who would say I was not doing well.”

Julia’s employers didn’t take any action to address her work, but she found that she was given fewer and fewer assignments, which affected her confidence even further. Although she never told them what she was going though, it was clear that something was wrong. “If they [my bosses] saw me in tears they would say, ‘You go home.’ I think my stress also manifests itself in physical pain as well.”

“It was all-consuming. I’d sit at my desk on my phone 24/7, or I’d wake up with my eyes swollen in the morning unable to go to work, because it was quite clear I’d been crying all evening.” - Julia

A colleague became her closest confidant. “I didn’t want my friends to know what was going on because I didn’t want them to make the decision for me. The only person I told was my colleague Oliver. I don’t think I would have made it through the break-up if I hadn’t had him at work.”

After Julia finally broke up with her boyfriend, her relationship with Oliver became something more. “He later became my boyfriend, because he wasn’t judgmental. He would listen,” she says.

When Julia’s relationship finally ended, her work took a turn almost immediately. “The Monday morning after we broke up, I went into work and I was a different person. I didn’t have a sense of anxiety in my stomach any more, I wasn’t focused on what he was doing, I wasn’t focused on who he was speaking to. I was focused on my job for the first time in months.”

The One who hid her heartache

Rouba was on the cusp of a career breakthrough. After years of working as a broadcast journalist, she was finally getting a shot at her dream job in front of the camera. But while her career was taking off, her relationship was in a downwards spiral. “I was in a relationship for four years. It was turbulent for a long time, but it seemed to become very prevalent because my career was excelling. The more successful I was getting, the more it felt like that was not okay for my girlfriend.”

It became increasingly clear to Rouba that her career and her relationship were a toxic combination. “Being a live reporter involves the height of focus and being as confident as you can be, but my girlfriend was trying to destroy that confidence,” she says.

The situation reached a crescendo when Rouba received a text from her girlfriend ending the relationship just moments before she was due live on air. “I was going through complete inner turmoil. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there and do what I needed to do to deal with my emotions. I had to put that to one side and go live on television, which was completely bizarre. That news report was probably the worst one I’ve ever done because I had no idea what I was saying… it was just totally out of my control.”

It wasn’t just the break-up itself that stopped Rouba from shining in her career but the months leading up to it. “At five to the hour for about two months [just before I would go on air], there were negative conversations. So I just kind of got used to reporting under such distress and difficult emotional feelings.”

There was an upside to those tearful conversations. “I got used to just leaving my emotions to the side and doing the job in a very robotic way. In some ways that’s been a complete hindrance to my career but in other ways it’s given me the tools and resources to put whatever I put aside and do the job.”

Rouba chose not to share her grief with colleagues, which helped her to cope with the break-up in her own way. “I’m close with a lot of my colleagues, but I’m in a very intimate space in front of the camera. I deliberately hid things because if someone would say, ‘Are you okay?’, I’d just break down.”

“I got used to just leaving my emotions to the side and doing the job in a very robotic way.” - Rouba

Self-confidence is key to Rouba’s job, along with the team bond. “The most important relationship you have is with your camera person, and if they can sense weakness that might translate into our final product. So it’s really important to maintain face.”

Ultimately Rouba found that while her relationship dragged her down, it was her job that picked her up again by improving her confidence and sense of self-worth. “Working your way through a break-up gets a bad wrap,” she says. “But if you are working on your career and you’re feeling like you’re moving up and you’re successful, that can really boost your confidence and give you an outlet to feel good about yourself. It worked for me.”

Photo: WTTJ

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