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This DoubleTake column offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector.

High stress jobs and the impact on your personal life

Dear Kathryn:

I work in a community-based mental health program for adults suffering from schizophrenia. Safety requires us to go in pairs and I have been teamed with another caseworker for home visits over the past year.

My co-worker and I spend almost all day, every day, driving from client to client, stopping along the way for lunch or an after-hours drink. I think my colleague is good looking, smart and very good at his job. He’s funny, too. We have a lot of interesting talks and many laughs together. I think he likes me as much, if not more, than I like him. It’s getting intense and has frankly become much more intimate than I planned. So what's the catch?

I’m married with two kids, a mortgage and a fifteen-year marriage that has me bored to death for most of those fifteen years.  This is such a hot mess, I don’t know where to turn or what to do.

Kathryn says ...

Yikes. This situation could become a prescription for disaster - both for him and for you (and your family and career).

Because he is your lateral colleague and not a boss or subordinate, there is probably no problem with two colleagues falling in love or in lust (there, I said it), unless there is a specific policy at your organization regarding work relationships that prohibits such personal alliances. Check your employee manual. If there is no policy against it, this “hot mess” is not a work issue, unless you two are neglecting your clients. It's a personal, marital issue (for you) and way out of my purview to advise you.  That said, if one of you is either a direct supervisor of the other or a member of the general nonprofit management team, this would be a real HR problem that needs to be disclosed to your manager, ASAP.  

We've all been hearing, of late, that there are many instances of subordinates being taken advantage of by managers, resulting in harsh and sometimes sexually abusive or career killing retribution for the "underling" who is ready to stop the relationship.  In order to prevent this illegal and nasty turn of events, as well as to protect your nonprofit and its governance team, such a relationship should be reported immediately.  Some nonprofits will ask you to sign a waiver, relieving the organization of legal responsibility; some will demand an immediate cessation of an intimate relationship; and, frankly, some will terminate both or one of you.  The requirements and results of your self-reporting, and that response's impact on you and/or your illicit partner, will likely have repercussions and you may want to get yourself legal advice in this situation.  I would definitely do so.

I understand how easy it is to get attached to someone who shares your deep commitment to a social cause and with whom you spend eight or more hours every day. I have provided similar services to the same population you describe in my early professional life and I know firsthand that you are in a high stress occupation. There’s a reason why police, hospital and firefighter television series use your scenario as a central plot theme — because it happens all the time. It’s natural to need support and get very close to those who understand the daily challenges you face.  Then, mix in a troubled existing marriage and watch the drama begin.

Whatever your colleague may be to you, he’s perhaps a symptom of deeper marital issues and your relationship with him may not be the best way to deal with your current life issues. Your new lover may be THE ONE and you'll live (at some point) happily ever after.  Nonetheless, to protect the integrity of your post-marriage parenting (if you choose to go the divorce route) and your work career, you may want to put this distracting extra-marital relationship on hold until you get other issues in your life sorted out.  The poet Robert Browning tells us: “It’s best to be off with old love, Before you are on with the new.”

If this guy really cares about you, he’ll give you the time and space to figure out your marriage and what makes sense for you, your family and your career.  



The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.




Co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, founder and president of MissionBox Philanthropic Fund, founder and past CEO of Community TechKnowledge


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