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The Southern California Job Market : Making It Work : Bringing Home the Bacon When Trouble's Cooking There


The earthquake last January was just one in a series of disasters that strained Robert Sackett's ability to focus on his work.

First, the customer relations manager of a Santa Monica software concern was felled by a kidney infection for the entire month of December. Then, his Sherman Oaks home was wrecked by the earthquake. Finally, two weeks later, he stepped on a shard of glass at a friend's house in Northridge, severely injuring his foot.

"It's ludicrous at this point," Sackett, 42, says. "I'm a manager--I'm expected to be a problem solver, not a victim. So I worry about how this looks to my staff. I have done my job over the past few weeks, but I have not been as effective as I would like to be by quite a margin."

Sooner or later, we all face some measure of grief, some amount of distraction. But, as we all well know, a personal crisis is not a license for an extended leave from your job responsibilities. Still, when your world at home is falling apart, just how can you remain attentive to your job? After all, there's no point in compounding your problems by jeopardizing your standing at work.

"Focus on the task at hand," says Judith Martin, author of the syndicated etiquette column, "Miss Manners." She suggests employees use work as a welcome distraction from their private ordeals.

"Taking your mind off your troubles can be much more valuable than wallowing in them," she says. "Remind yourself, 'I am not here as a person with aches and pains and resentment. I am here as a person with a job to do.' "

Raymona Bailey, whose 9-year-old son suffers sickle cell disease, practices that technique while teaching seventh grade at Markham Intermediate in South-Central Los Angeles.

"I tell myself, 'I've done everything humanly possible; Anthony is now in God's hands,' " explains Bailey, 41, a single mother who is divorced from Anthony's father. "Then I do the best job I can for the youngsters I have in front of me."

People with chronically ill family members, or who themselves are chronically ill, face a double urgency for hanging on to their job despite personal pressures. Not only do they need the paycheck, they need the group health insurance.

"I see families stand on their heads to keep their health insurance," says Pat Riordan, a social worker at Children's Hospital of Orange County.

While divorce is probably the most common stress that employees bear, it is still one of the most painful and consuming personal disappointments. And it is usually preceded by months of an unhappy, moribund marriage.

"The period leading to the breakup was actually worse in terms of work productivity," says Rich Seeley, 46, a technical writer for a computer manufacturer in Woodland Hills. "You have sleepless nights, you might drink too much, you spend a lot of time either fighting with or not talking to your spouse."

When Seeley went through his divorce three years ago, he found that sharing his experience with co-workers helped to ease tensions. "I left my wife on a Sunday, and on Monday I went to my immediate supervisor and talked to her about it," he explains. "I wanted people to understand why I was quieter than usual, and why I sometimes closed my office door to make phone calls."

Barry Glassner, chairman of the sociology department at USC and author of the recently published book, "Career Crash," said that open communication is often the best policy.

"It removes the mystery," he says. "Otherwise, the gossip mill gets going, and instead of going through a divorce you're having an affair, and instead of having to make repairs on your home, you're homeless."

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