Losing You is a weeklong series investigating heartbreak. According to Facebook data, 11th December is the most popular day for couples to break up. So what better time to look at relationship breakdowns, why they happen and how they affect us. We’ve all been there: you feel sick, can’t eat, can’t sleep and begin to contemplate a future without your ex. It feels like there isn’t a language to explain just how apocalyptic a broken heart can feel and, unlike a bereavement, you’re expected to carry on as usual. What if we took heartbreak more seriously? Above all, what would happen if we looked at what we gain from a relationship, however long it lasts, as well as what we’ve lost?
But as time went on, cracks began to appear. "You know when it feels like you’ve just done all the compromising you can do?" Vanese says. "I was like, 'I love this guy so much but, at the same time, if there are things I feel like I need within a relationship, then I should be able to have them.'"
After they realized they were "headed in different directions", Vanese and her partner ended their four-year relationship on a Sunday night earlier this year. She was heartbroken.
On the Monday morning, Vanese awoke in their shared flat and dragged herself to the office, where she was working as a community experience executive for an app. "Work was the last place I wanted to be," she says. "I came in and spoke to one of my friends and kind of broke down." Vanese was excused from the company’s weekly 'huddle' that morning. She cried intermittently in the bathroom throughout the day and left work in the evening without meeting her daily target. "I obviously couldn’t really concentrate," she explains, adding that as she had a fraught relationship with her manager, she felt unable to share with him what she was going through.
The next day, her manager called her in for a meeting. "I don’t really know what I thought he was going to say. I think maybe I thought he’d say, 'Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.' However, I was wrong."
"As soon as I got in there, he said the work I did yesterday wasn’t good enough and I was leaving my desk too much. He was really mean to me," she recalls. "I said to him, 'Yeah, it’s taking me a bit longer to do stuff but that’s because I’m not feeling good.' We got into an argument and I was just crying hysterically. I said to him, 'Look, what do you want? Do you want me to be at my desk crying?'"
"I said, 'If I could, I would go home, but you can’t take time off just because you’re heartbroken.'"
During acute heartbreak, an employee may burst into tears at the slightest thing or snap at a colleague or a client. Our capacity to deal with stress and conflict tends to be lower.
Olivia James, trauma therapist
The company Vanese worked for isn’t unusual in this regard: in most workplaces, you can’t take paid heartbreak leave. But why not? In Germany you can take time off work for 'liebeskummer' – which translates roughly as 'love grief' – while companies in Japan and Australia offer heartbreak leave, too.
Heartbreak is far from trivial: studies have shown that our brains register heartbreak in the same way as physical pain and in extreme cases the emotional stress of a breakup can cause broken heart syndrome, which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body. In her Dear Dolly column for The Times, Dolly Alderton once recounted the story of a dying woman who claimed her experience of terminal illness was not as bad as heartbreak. "You could say a breakup is like a bereavement. It’s a loss," Vanese adds.
Society’s attitude to heartbreak is strangely paradoxical. Love is framed as the be-all and end-all of human existence in books, films, TV shows and songs. It's in the minutiae of our day-to-day-lives: packs of food are designed to serve two; one-bedroom flats are often built to accommodate two people. It runs deeper than 21st century society’s expectations, too: we’re social creatures and it’s human nature to want to love and be loved. And yet breakups – an inevitable consequence of looking for love, and a universal experience – are regarded as embarrassing and petty.
This can pose a problem when it comes to going into work with a broken heart. Vanese explains that she felt as though her manager trivialized her problems. "He never took my mental health struggles seriously. It was so difficult to feel like I wasn’t supported at work."
Nishan, 23, is another young woman who has experienced going into the office while heartbroken. She split from her boyfriend over the weekend of their two-year anniversary and on Monday returned to work. "I had had no sleep because I was just vomiting the night before," she says. "Everyone in the office noticed I was upset and asked if it was boyfriend troubles. I just ignored it all."
As the day went on Nishan, who works as a project development officer, felt progressively worse. "At two o’clock I went upstairs to my manager and asked if I could go home because something really traumatic happened to me over the weekend and I couldn’t focus." Thankfully, Nishan’s manager was sympathetic. "She was really understanding and let me go home and then I worked from home on the Tuesday."
Even though Nishan opened up to her manager about how she was feeling, she still found it hard to begin that conversation. "It just felt a bit embarrassing to be really sad about it – which is weird because it was two years of my life," she says.
Natalie Ellis, an HR expert at Rebox HR, acknowledges that it can be difficult to open up about heartbreak at work. "I think there is a stigma attached to a breakup, we've all been there," she says. "But if you are struggling, reach out to your manager or someone you feel supported by. Sometimes talking things through can really help heal."
Although it can feel humiliating to admit to your manager that you’re struggling with heartbreak, there’s evidence that a breakup can have a visible impact on our work and it’s important to keep your boss in the loop.
Olivia James, a London-based trauma therapist, explains: "During acute heartbreak, an employee may be more reactive, absent-minded and less able to handle confrontation. They may burst into tears at the slightest thing or snap at a colleague or a client. Our capacity to deal with stress and conflict tends to be lower. This can lead to more guilt and shame, which compounds the suffering."
"I'm in favour of paid compassionate leave for those who need it," she continues. "Empathetic leaders recognize that employees are human beings with a life outside work. Organzsations with a healthy company culture hire the right people and take good care of them."
Gone are the days when people left their personal problems at the door. If it impacts your work, you should speak up.
Natalie Ellis, HR Expert
James and Ellis add that some people cope by throwing themselves into work, which has been the case for 31-year-old Faith*.
Faith, who works in the creative industries, recently broke up with her partner of two and a half years. "I was convinced she was the love of my life. We had all these plans to have children and get married," she explains. "But she broke my trust and yeah, broke my heart."
Faith has continued to go into work since the breakup. "I’ve actually found it a really pleasant distraction from my personal life," she explains. "I have told my bosses and they’ve been really supportive. I felt really fortunate." Likewise, Nishan felt that going into work ensured she wasn’t "dwelling" on her negative emotions.
But Faith adds that she’s feeling more drained in the evenings and could have benefited from just a few days off to rest and process the breakup. "It’s like I’m happily distracted by work but then I’m really exhausted and emotional at the end of the day." Nishan, too, admits that even one day of leave would have made a huge difference. "I didn’t get any work done on that Monday and I spent the majority of the time trying not to cry behind my desk."
Evidently, everyone reacts differently to breakups and some people won’t even want heartbreak leave. But it’s vital that employers are sympathetic towards their employees and try to be as flexible as possible when it comes to accommodating heartbreak. While some might want just one day off work to gather their thoughts, others might find their heartbreak leads to depression and need more time off. What’s important is that workers feel as though they can put their lives before their work during emotionally challenging times.
Ellis reiterates that beginning a dialogue with your manager to explain your own unique situation is the best way forward. "Gone are the days when people left their personal problems at the door. If it impacts your work, you should speak up," she says.
However, as evidenced by Vanese’s story, voicing your concerns to a manager won’t always go smoothly. She has since left her job, and subsequently received an apology from her former manager over Instagram. "He was like, 'I’m really sorry I never took you seriously, I didn’t understand the mental health side of things,'" she says. "I think it’s just so strange. There were all those times I told him I wasn’t feeling great and asked him to support me and he just didn’t."
Ultimately, the onus isn’t just on employees to speak up – it’s also on employers to listen.
*Name has been changed