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I am working from home as a web developer. Like the title says, I have really been slacking off lately. The changes that have come along with the virus have really had an impact on my ability to be productive, and my work ethic pretty much vanished. Now I have nothing to show for a few weeks and my boss has started asking about it. I have recently improved my work ethic a bit, so this shouldn't be a continuing problem, but how can I address this issue with my boss?

I don't want to lie and say I have been doing something when I really haven't done anything, but I am not sure how else to approach this without being fired. Is that something I should even be worrying about here?

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    How many weeks are talking about here? 2? 12? The further behind you are, the harder it will be to catch up. The harder it will be to catch up, the more likely a dire outcome. Also: is your boss technical? Is he likely to have noticed, for example, that you haven't made any new commits to github in X weeks? Is he likely to check VPN access logs to see if you've been online within the company network, and what you were doing there? – Steve-O Jul 23 at 20:00
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    @Steve-O I wouldn't count on a non-technical supervisor giving any extra cover. While my PM doesn't have access to source control, if she was concerned about my performance she'd just ask another dev on the team who would have access to the git logs. As for something like VPN/etc logs, in normal cases I'd a technical manager would still need to send a request to IT rather than checking directly. And for that it's not necessary to know specifically what systems might have incriminated evidence, and opened ended question about if X is actually doing anything would suffice. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight Jul 23 at 22:09
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    Did you agree to a specific deadline or did your boss give you a specific deadline? If yes, how far away is it? If it's far off there's hope. Otherwise you're in bad, bad shape here. – HenryM Jul 24 at 3:13
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    @GregMartin Respectfully, your comments might fit better as an answer rather than multiple comments, and also so the community can upvote and downvote your suggestion appropriately. – maxathousand Jul 24 at 13:21
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    @Fattie the OP has not been doing their job, while being paid to do their job. Incredible that you think that's "doing nothing wrong". Maybe it's a result of mental health issues, as some are assuming, but we're in no place to diagnose that (IMO that's for a medical professional to consider) when the OP says they have simply been "slacking off" and their "work ethic has vanished". But you don't even make that defence as others have, you just say that as long as the OP is getting paid its OK. Workers' rights are great, but workers have to actually work. The OP admits to not working. – BittermanAndy Jul 24 at 15:09

14 Answers 14

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You should absolutely worry. You should also get your butt in gear and get cracking on some of your deliverables. You can stall your boss, but don't ever lie to them. It's one thing to have an employee who has slacked and owned up to it while showing the gusto to get back to providing the proper output. Lying to your boss is straight out and out firing material.

The way to approach it is to get to doing double duty for a while. You need to catch up. After you've gotten a bit of a foothold on the workload, you can engage directly with your boss. If they ask about productivity, you can say very honestly that you feel your productivity slipped during that period and you've been working to make up for it. An employee who is willing to self-assess, identify issues and then is willing to do the work to make up for it is someone employers want to keep around.

You need to be truthful. You need to catch up on your backlog. You need to start adding the value they're paying you for.

Or you need to start looking for your next opportunity. Employer patience will only last so long. Start working now to get caught up.

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    I agree with that, would just add that a possible way to formulate it in a discussion with the author's boss is something like: "I struggled with the new situation for a few weeks and didn't progress the way I should have. I'm currently working very intensively to catch up". – BigMadAndy Jul 23 at 19:54
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    @BigMadAndy the key though is showing that intensive catchup. – Joel Etherton Jul 23 at 20:01
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    Hopefully "I'm about to get fired" will do wonders for that work ethic. Some people need a certain amount of pressure to deliver, I suppose – bytepusher Jul 24 at 2:48
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    “The way to approach it is to get to doing double duty for a while. You need to catch up.” This is only a good approach if OP had a simple bout of laziness or lack of motivation. If OP is suffering from depression or any other serious issue it could be counterproductive to put on pressure. – Michael Jul 24 at 6:04
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    @JoelEtherton, regarding “‘my work ethic vanished’ […] that's not a statement I would attribute to someone suffering depression”: On the contrary, I’ve heard almost exactly that from multiple people suffering depressive spells; as an academic, we’re trained to look out for things like “I’ve lost my motivation recently” as red flags for depression/burnout in students. Loss of energy/executive function is a classic symptom of depression, and when people with a strong work ethic get it, they often describe it as having lost their work ethic or motivation, or even just as laziness. – PLL Jul 24 at 14:46
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101% of programmers have weeks where they achieve absolutely nothing.

  1. Simply say nothing. Nothing.

  2. Assuming you do want to keep the job, work hard from this day onwards.

  3. Totally forget the idea of some sort of apology or statement about these past weeks. Do not "raise the issue".

  4. IF you are asked about it, simply answer politely and positively. Do NOT talk about, mention or address in any way reasons, theories or narratives.

For example,

"Hmm. I really see what you mean boss, productivity was down the week of the 14th. That's bad! I'll have to really focus as of today."

Absolutely forget the idea of making some sort of statement.

  1. If the company wants to fire you, they will fire you.

  2. If your boss wants to gab about the issue, it is her right, and you are paid to listen. Listen politely.

  3. If your boss gabs about the issue, answer as per the above example.

  4. 101% of programmers have weeks where they achieve absolutely nothing. If you now "get to work" there will be no problem. IF you now get to work, it is a non-issue.


An interesting footnote:

A comment brought to the fore some of the different reasons programmers occasionally achieve nothing for the odd week:

  • "time to subconsciously recharge"

  • pure, explicit, directed, deliberate, "why should I do this, I'm not paid enough" slackness (wave!)

  • "procrastination" (a big one)

  • the "locked in fear" aspect

Regardless of the reason, and there are many, it's just a Programmer Thing. Most weeks you work, occasional weeks you make excuses.


Note that "a week" is quite different from "3 or 4 weeks"

As always on SE, there are various readings of questions, with the usual confusion between titles, question bodies and OP comments.

As many have pointed out, certainly, "stopping all work for three full plus weeks" is completely different from "programmers and musicians often slack for days on end".

On the other hand, it is a gross, obvious and major part of software engineering as we know it that programmers from time to time slack for days.


It has to be said that the reality today is, half of working programmers just ... do not care. In the current market if you lose a job, so what? You can have another before the hour ends. The reality presently is that many/most programmers, when they have a "nothing" week, don't even feel any concern at all. They simply have a "What can they do, fire me?" attitude. For better or worse that's the reality of the current market :O

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    Weeks might occasionally go by without achieving anything... because you're banging your head against the desk trying to fix a really hard bug. Weeks going by without DOING anything, as in the question, is a very different thing. I also suspect your representation of the current "reality" is not right. Anyone who just turns up, does nothing, doesn't care, and gets fired, will very very quickly find it much more difficult to find another job. And rightly so. – BittermanAndy Jul 24 at 12:06
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    hi @BittermanAndy ; hmm, I would say this. (1) just as you say, basically bugs can eat days, weeks. However, i do believe that as I say, setting aside the "bug time eating monster" (2) it is I'm afraid very common for programmers to "bugger about" and achieve almost nothing, for the odd week. To put a number on it, this might happen 2 or 3 times a year. {It's not the only profession like this. Musicians will spend ages slagging off (and then make a platinum album); in advertising nothing happens on Fridays (and maybe Thursdays). I'm afraid that what I say is an accurate representation of .. – Fattie Jul 24 at 12:54
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    .. of software engineering, in my opinion! It's an incredibly difficult field, where a "burst" of work can generate amazing value; for better or worse programmers are often guilty of "buggering about" for the odd week. The OP has given an example here. As I further say (3) you do have to swing back hard to work! from these slack periods. But the key answer to the question at hand is the OP must forget any idea of some sort of speech about the issue, "raising the issue". OP should say nothing and get back to work hard. – Fattie Jul 24 at 12:55
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    I'd half agree with this. I have some weeks that are not very productive, but it's usually because I've spent a lot of time on a design or strategy that just isn't going to work. There's a difference between spending a week with nothing to show for it but a bunch of lessons learned, and nothing to show for it at all... because you've been sat on your butt watching TV for a week. – J... Jul 24 at 14:45
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    @J... When I have "nothing weeks" I'm not watching TV. I am sitting in front of the computer. I look at my editor or terminal. My brain does not connect with the problem. It's like there is a chasm. The gears are not turning. I go do something else. Grab a coffee. E-mail, news, stackoverflow, whatever. Most days my brain "re-engages" after a bit of time. But on the odd really bad week it doesn't. Evidently not everyone has this problem, but it's also not uncommon, even among successful engineers - I relate a lot to Joel Spolsky here: joelonsoftware.com/2002/01/06/fire-and-motion – JB Chouinard Jul 24 at 15:10
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MANY others are in the same situation as you: working-from-home during the pandemic and suffering massive productivity drops. Tragically, this often isn't something that folks can admit to and talk about with their co-workers and managers.

I disagree with @JoelEtherton who says the solution here is merely to "get cracking on deliverables" and do "double-duty" to catch up. That completely dismisses the root-cause of your productivity drop. You need to address why you're unable to produce. Just "forcing yourself" isn't going to work. Once you start dealing with what's really behind this, then you'll be able to "get cracking" again and produce those deliverables.

The hard part is that we all have different needs and values and we're all in different workplaces which function in wildly different ways, there's no one "prescription" that will work for all of us to get out of such productivity slumps. It's a complex problem.

Any advice you hear about this has to be tempered against what's possible for you and your workplace. What worked for me or anyone else isn't necessarily YOUR solution.

That said, here's my advice:

  • Keep in mind that others, including your boss, may be going through the same thing. If you have a relationship of trust, you can just admit that you're feeling burned out and unable to focus. Say that you would like to work with your boss on coming out of this slump. Things that can help are more one-on-one meetings, more collaboration and communication with peers, more specific work instructions that are easier to handle when you lack focus.

  • Take a vacation. Seriously, use some PTO, get your mind completely off of work for a while.

  • Get serious about removing distractions from your home work setup. In my case, clearing my desk of everything except what I need for work helped a lot. Turn off notifications/twitter/instagram/facebook, institute a do-not-disturb policy with your family, stay out of relaxation/recreation areas in your home, and especially go on a "news diet" to avoid dark rabbit-holes/doom-scrolling.

  • Focus on what's really important, drop the other stuff. Depending on your job, you may have some discretion about what you work on. I found it super helpful to work on things which I know are important, and deliberately ignore the boilerplate work. In my case, there's a PM who runs status meetings that are absolutely mind-numbing-- basically just a long pre-fab "checklist" for deliverables most of which are not applicable to the deliverable. I quit going to these and was prepared for a sh*t-storm, but guess what, nothing happened. These were annoying before the pandemic and somehow they're now exposed as utterly meaningless. Others felt the same way. YMMV.

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  1. Do whatever you can to have something to show them by the next meeting.
  2. Take proactive action to prevent this from happening, such as setting up a daily stand up or weekly meeting.
  3. Don't lie and be honest and don't try to hide if they ask you directly why you are behind. Other people can see straight through bullshit so better to be seen an employee who slipped up and taking steps to make it right, than an employee who won't own up to their mistakes and tries to hide it, and leave it to become worse.
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    Another proactive action might be to talk to a licensed therapist as well as your boss. It's reasonable that isolation and a paradigmatic change in working conditions can lead to work not getting for psychological reasons. While you probably can't say, "I didn't do any work, sorry." You might be able to say, "I have found it hard to get work done and here's what I'm doing to fix that…" – kojiro Jul 24 at 11:28
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I'll add this tack, which I didn't see among the other answers: You might be (or have been) suffering from depression induced by the covid annoyance. Contact a mental health professional and get some counseling. Hopefully this will help your slacking.

Then, when you confess to your boss that you've had much trouble focusing, you can show that you've taken steps to deal with your inner struggles. I think he'll be less likely to fire you when he sees that you took pro-active steps to correct your "slacking" and that the problem is temporary.

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Every workplace is different, but I know some bosses will plan for a certain amount of "slack-time" for every worker throughout the year. My boss has directly said this is part of his strategy. So, your will boss be concerned, but may not be upset.

However, there's a bigger problem here. The question you're asking is vague and non-committal. Before we can give you any relevant answer, we need to either know more, or guess from our own experiences — and your mileage may vary.

You also need to get your facts straight, and give yourself an honest evaluation before you will be capable of telling your boss the honest truth.

  • How long has this been happening?
  • Did it start in response to a specific event? (Was it a result of your working situation changing? Personal issues?)
  • What has helped you overcome this? Can you rely on this new influence to continue?
  • How bad is it? Have you missed deadlines? Have you blocked someone else from finishing a task?

In short, you have to confront all the facts — especially the bad ones — before you can make a path to go forward. If you do talk about this to your boss, I recommend to prepare in advance a plan for how to go forward, which explains how you and he/she can ensure success.

For example, once I struggled with working alone on a particular project, so I asked my boss to schedule regular meetings to help me stay accountable to him and to the team. I had learned from previous failures that even a meeting with a non-management co-worker was enough to keep me motivated and accountable for whatever project related to that meeting.

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In most (all?) of my employment contracts, the place of work has been specified. If you get into trouble and need some "offensive" arguments to not get fired you could maybe use this (if you have similar writings in your contract, even if they are implicit): "I never said I could work from home and be as efficient as I am when I work at the office and in my contract it is explicitly written that my workplace is at the office. You broke my contract by forcing me to work from home." and so on.

Personally, I would suck at working alone from home and I would have told my manager that if I ever was asked to do that.

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I have recently improved my work ethic a bit, so this shouldn't be a continuing problem,

It sounds like you do have something to show your boss. Earlier you said you have nothing, but it sounds like you're working on things.

but how can I address this issue with my boss?

My thought is you should be honest with your boss. Say that you are having trouble adjusting with the COVID-19 stay at home orders and you haven't been able to focus on your deliverable. My thought is that you're not alone with this. At my current workplace, they had an entire department return to work and the reason is the main boss found out a lot of people did absolutely nothing at all.

Now granted, you have a bit of leeway here compared to normal time. For one they know that everyone is at home. Chances are they are having issues with performance across the board.

Is that something I should even be worrying about here?

It depends. It's unclear from your question if you actually have deliverable that you didn't actually delivered and pushed the schedule back and now you have to explain. It's pretty typical that a developer would have nothing to show for weeks, maybe months at a time while waiting on the next project. During this time, you might be expected to work on fixing bugs or looking at the backlog a little.

If your boss is simply asking what sort of work you've been doing, but he's not asking why something hasn't been delivered or why you keep pushing dates back, then my guess is you're in a very good position to explain.

If your boss has been asking for a deliverable and you're pushing the date back and now you have to face the music, then yes you might have a little bit to worry. However, you have some leeway here as I said earlier. Chances are others might be in the same position but I wouldn't count that as a valid excuse. It also sounds like you are aware so it is not like you're playing ignorance. So if you are push dates back, I would say it is time to face the music. Have a serious talk with your boss and say you are having trouble adjusting but right now, you are making progress and getting back in the game. Give a realistic estimation and say you will have it done by this date. If he says that is not good enough, or if you must work overtime, then I would say try to do it as best as you can.

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Honesty is the best policy. Tell him your situation and how the pandemic and social isolation has been negatively affecting your mental health. Tell him how, as a result, you haven't been as productive as you could be. Be solution oriented - tell him how you've started to pick up your game again by exercising, eating proper and learning new skills related to the job. Even if these are not true, doing the aforementioned three will improve your situation.

This being said, don't make the Coronavirus situation an excuse for slacking off.

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I've been much the same. I have been doing very little work for the past few months. Sure, everyone in my team has been affected, but I took it to a whole other level. And then there was the guilt of not being able to do anything. It wasn't like I didn't want to work, but I just couldn't. I just stared at my PC, scrolled around on news websites or Stack Exchange, did some chores around the house. If I really wanted to slack off, I'm sure I'd be spending a bit of time working hard, then the rest of the day doing something I really wanted to do, rather than spend hours reading the news.

Does that sound like what you're feeling? Read on.

My boss isn't blind. He confronted me in a 1-on-1 meeting. I'll admit, I cried. All the guilt and stress got me. He seemed to realize I didn't want to slack off. We made a plan. I'm allowed to work whenever I want and as much as I want. If I work less than my normal 40 hours a week, the hours get substracted from my PTO and if I work more, they get added to my PTO. This was 2 weeks ago. It has been a lot better since, I've actually got work done. The guilt isn't blocking me anymore, but some of the stress still is. I hope to get my referal for therapy soon. Meanwhile I've started with self-help videos for depression from a therapist.

It sounds like you're ill, not lazy. What's most important right now is getting your "work ethic" back. Who can help you with that? I don't know what your boss is like. Perhaps they're like mine, perhaps they're very different. You'll be the better judge of that. Figure out who can help you (that can be multiple people) and start there.

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When you say you've been slacking off for a "few" weeks but have "recently" improved, what are the relative proportions of these periods and how much working time has been wasted?

If things have really gotten better now, then you could claim to have been "struggling to concentrate" thus far. That is, struggling to establish a routine, to impose order on your home environment, to avoid distraction, to maintain a proper pace in the absence of colleagues or supervision. Perhaps even your mental health has suffered due to lockdown measures and the loss of normal leisure which compensates for work.

But if there is more time lost over 3 to 4 weeks than can be accounted for by even grievous inefficiency, and you really haven't done a jot, then it might be time to bite the bullet and confess pre-emptively together with a clear resolution to it (such as returning to working from the office). Cast it as a call for help. A few weeks is perhaps a reasonable amount of time for someone to try and fail at self-discipline in a new situation, especially if the situation was imposed unexpectedly and there was no alternative to it anyway.

A competent manager is likely to appreciate your honesty, especially if you have a good work record prior to this episode, and he can write off home-working as a bad experiment - at least in your case.

However, if the time already lost is measurable in months rather than weeks, and you've already dragged it out to a shameless degree, then really the only option is to be honest about the full extent, throw yourself on the mercy of your boss, and be prepared to be disciplined if not fired.

What is for sure, is that if significant amounts of time have without question been lost, then any attempt to take your boss for a fool is likely to make unemployment a certainty.

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You have been accepting payment for doing work, but you've not been doing that work. Yes, you should absolutely worry about being fired (or at least some kind of formal disciplinary proceedings). Of course you should.

You don't want to lie to your boss. Good. That leaves one other possibility, doesn't it? Tell the truth. Face up to it, like an adult. Eat humble pie. There may be consequences. Those consequences may include termination of employment - you don't want that, but what else do you expect? If you are at least honest and show genuine remorse and a desire to make good, you might get away with a warning and a suggestion for how you're going to fix this.

You may even get some support given that the virus situation has had an impact on your productivity. However, don't make excuses. Finding things difficult means you should have asked for help earlier, instead of waiting for someone to notice your work ethic vanished. You have done something that is (very likely) against the terms of your employment. The only thing you can do is be honest and hope that your honesty is respected. Either way, learn from it.

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    This answer feels needlessly pithy. OP isn't trying to justify what they did, they're just looking for the best way to handle the situation they're in now. That can be answered without pith/sounding condescending. – Kialandei Jul 24 at 9:09
  • In my experience, "Tell the truth...like an adult" rarely has the desired outcome like it might for children. There is usually a better middle ground that does not involve outright telling lies. – Sh4d0wsPlyr Jul 24 at 14:10
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    Well, this answer is evidently unpopular to some. Fair enough. Call me naive or condescending, I just think honesty and truthfulness are important characteristics. Finding a middle ground sounds nice, but if that means something like the current highest-voted answer (make up the time and hope no-one noticed), if someone did notice - as it sounds like they may have - you just look dishonest and untrustworthy. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but when I do something I know to be wrong, I own up to it and try to make it right, and I'd want my staff to do the same. Perhaps others feel differently. – BittermanAndy Jul 24 at 14:44
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    @BittermanAndy, I think you're putting too much judgement upon OP for being in a slump during these weird times. Productivity, performance and motivation modulate over time even in normal circumstances with top-shelf employees. It's clear the OP is willing to be accountable for his actions, but it is also quite normal for him to seek to mitigate the impact of these human shortcomings on his career. "Radical honesty" is rarely a good idea outside of sitcom plots or Quaker meetinghouses. – teego1967 Jul 24 at 15:46
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    @BittermanAndy The problem is that there's no good reason, in practice, to value honesty and truthfulness so highly. Honesty is good, but to be overly honest when it's not necessary can be harmful. Not saying anything is not the same as being dishonest. – user91988 Jul 24 at 15:59
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There is a lot to unpack here, and not enough context, even location will change a lot in the answer, just as examples:

  • Country, some countries (USA...) will have been vastly more impacted by current events than others
  • Type of employment (freelance ? Employee ? Intern ?)
  • Workplace culture
  • Length of the "slacking"
  • How short are the deadlines and how important the project is ?

First, remember we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and even if you live in the least affected countries, this is bound to affect your concentration, however you look at it.

For the second point, if you are freelance and deliverable will not be hit, it will be a hard situation, although especially in the worst affected countries, it should be possible to negotiate. If you are a employee, this is a lot more salvageable.

Third, does your boss already know about you struggling to focus ? Or will it be a full discovery ? If he doesn't know, was it because you were hiding it, or because you didn't had the opportunity to bring it up ?

How long are we talking here too ? And was progress totally halted, or just reduced ?

With so many questions left standing, I can only assume, and will just describe two scenario that (to me) seems likely:

  • You are in one of the worst hit countries (US), progress severely reduced for 3 weeks, no opportunity to talk to your boss about it, deadline will probably be missed:

You are a human, not a robot, and you cannot be expected to be insensible when everything around you is crumbling.

Plan for a health check to ensure you aren't starting a depression or burnout and get help, a job is nothing compared to your health.

Also, do not describe it as "slacking off", you had trouble focusing, and this is just being human.

  • Current events aren't really the matter, you really were slacking off and not just having trouble adjusting to remote working or safety measures:

I have trouble imagining that, and you will probably have to negotiate a pay cut or retro actively take holidays or something. Kudos for being at once so sure about your mental state, holding up in those dire times, and recognising your faults though.

  • In all cases

Plan a meeting with your boss now, tell him about the deadlines and how the current events are affecting you, help him understand exactly what the current state of the project is, and establish a solution to get as much on track as possible.

Be honest about what was happening to you, just stay factual if you don't want to delve on it, focus on what you can do to fix this (the project and how you ended up getting late on the deliveries).

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Your options depend a lot on your team's culture, your relationship with your boss and your own circumstances.

One option to investigate is your company's policies on extended leave (paid or unpaid). It sounds like the transition to working remotely under the virus has impacted you more than most people, and you should consider treating this as a potential mental health issue. If you can take some time away from work to get yourself together and maybe consult a professional—something I would recommend to everyone[^1]—you'll have a better chance of figuring out exactly what happened and how you can get yourself happier, healthier and more productive.

As long as you have a competent manager and a healthy company culture, they should be entirely supportive of you taking a leave because you were strongly impacted by the lockdown. This is not true everywhere, but I can tell you that I would be perfectly comfortable asking for an extended leave if I were in a similar situation on my current team. If I weren't, I would consider finding a new company regardless. (I understand that this is not a viable option for everyone, but in that case I can't give you useful advice!)

If you do this, there are basically two outcomes:

  1. Your manager empathizes with you and sees that you're taking concrete action about your situation. You have time to get yourself together and a good chance of coming back to work afterwards happier and more productive.
  2. Your manager doesn't emphasize or agree with a leave. This is a bad sign for your job at this company, but you're already on poor footing and, more importantly, you just got a signal that your work environment is not flexible on mental health issues.

Given these outcomes, it's worth asking for a leave unless you both think 2 is far more likely than 1 and cannot afford to lose your current job.

[^1]: In particular, I firmly believe a few sessions with a therapist would be beneficial to everyone, even if you don't have any diagnosable mental health issues. It is a real shame that this is still awkward or stigmatized in a lot of cultures.

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