Getting Through Your First Breakdown at Work

Posted by: Emma Hickey, Senior Content Contributor

Have you ever cried at work? I have. 

I was a few months into my second year as a Customer Experience Associate at Harry’s when I got the opportunity to work as a Seasonal Team Lead for a new team of 12 remote, seasonal CX Associates. In addition to managing and supporting this team, I also helped coordinate and conduct their interviews, as well as onboard, train and ultimately off-board them. The experience was a true crash course in people management, with some hiring and training best practices thrown in for good measure. 

It was a whirlwind four months where I learned invaluable skills that continue to carry me through my professional life. It was also one of the most demanding periods of my professional life, and the stress of it all culminated one evening in a small conference room where I cried and cried in front of my manager and two coworkers.

In moments like this, work stressors can feel all consuming and insurmountable, but you’ll get through it. You may even be better off afterwards. Through my work-induced breakdown, I learned what I could do differently next time to get through stressful times in the office without letting myself become so completely overwhelmed. Here’s what works for me:

Stay Organized

Before I took on this new people management role at work, my days as a Customer Experience Associate were fairly consistent. My time was structured by an Operations-based schedule and I knew exactly what I needed to do each day, exactly when to do it, and exactly how long it would take. Once I started working as a Team Lead, though, it was up to me to organize my time.

At the beginning of my new role, I would handwrite To Do Lists in a notebook, jot them down in the Notes App on my computer and create reminders in the Reminders App on my phone. Very quickly, I realized this wasn’t sustainable. Keeping my To Do’s in three separate places wasn’t efficient at all, especially when none of those places incorporated the tool that organized my entire work life--Google Calendars. When I expressed this to my manager, she introduced me to the Tasks feature of Gcal, and it’s been my most-used resource ever since. 

When I start to feel overwhelmed at work, reading over my Tasks List and organizing it based off of priority always anchors me. It helps make all the work I have to do feel more manageable and it helps me structure my time more effectively. There will always only be 24 hours in a day, but staying organized and prioritizing my To Do list is often enough to help me get through even the most demanding work weeks.

Maintain A Work-Life Balance

Part of the reason I was feeling so overwhelmed by work during this time period is because all I was doing was working. I would come into work early and stay late day in and day out, with no work-life balance to speak of. It was such an unsustainable lifestyle for me that I was only able to operate like this for a few weeks before breaking down. I now know that I need to balance my work life with a life outside of work, or I’ll surely end up crying in another conference room.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when I start to feel exceptionally stressed out by work, one of the first things I do is see if it’s possible for me to work less. There will always be times where it’s necessary to come into work early and stay late, but I know that’s not a schedule I can happily maintain for extended amounts of time. When I feel it starting to happen, I try to force myself to build activities into my life outside of work, whether it’s grabbing drinks with a friend, going to a movie, or scheduling time to just sit at home and snuggle with my cat. Balancing work with fun and relaxation keeps me sane during my most stressful days.

Use Your Support System

Using my support system is the most valuable lesson I took away from my breakdown. I had a great support system. My manager was invested not only in the success of my remote, seasonal team, but also in my personal success as a first time people manager. I was a part of a broader customer experience team that constantly lifted each other up professionally and personally. If I had only asked for help before I pushed myself to my limit and ended up crying in a conference room, I could have avoided the tears altogether.

One of my responsibilities as Team Lead was to quality audit emails my team sent to customers. It was a time consuming task and I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to complete my daily number of quality audits. My manager had no way of knowing this aside from me communicating it to her, but I didn’t. Instead, I let the stress created by my growing backlog of quality audits grow until it bubbled up that evening in the conference room. When I finally communicated that my daily number of quality audits wasn’t feasible for me to complete, my manager was nothing but receptive and reevaluated my daily count. If I had just utilized her for support and guidance the minute I started feeling overwhelmed, I doubt my stress would have ever turned into a full blown, crying-at-work scene. As a result, I now know that my manager is there for support in situations like this, and it’s up to me to make use of that. 

Another aspect of my new role that contributed to my stress was the fact that the remote, seasonal team worked both early and late shifts, and needed a tenured associate to work those same hours alongside them to answer their questions. I believed that person should be me, and the thought of working both the early and late shifts every day for the foreseeable future was definitely a catalyst to my tears. Again, once I expressed that this was what had me feeling overwhelmed, my two coworkers who were in the conference room with me and my manager readily volunteered to help provide some of that support for the remote team. They reminded me that there was no reason for me to do it on my own when my team was there to help. I just had to make use of them.


On Crying (At Work) While Female

Why it's OK for Your Employees to Leave Sometimes