I work in a telecommute position so most of my correspondence with my boss is over email/Skype. Today, I got a phone call that my mom's cancer has spread to the rest of her body. I knew she had cancer, but now I've been told that her prognosis is really bad.

Usually, I would not bring my personal business into my work life. I try to be as professional as possible. Understandably, the news of my mom's cancer being so severe has made me non-functioning for most of the day. I really just can't bring myself to focus on work.

I would like to explain to my boss why my productivity has been so low today. It is a very critical time for the company and there is a lot of pressure on me to meet deadlines and get things done. I was supposed to get lots done today, really critical work, and I didn't do any of it. And I feel absolutely horrible and as if I'm a bad employee because I didn't get anything done.

Another concern is to not come across as too ranty if I were to tell my boss about this. I am really struggling to keep it together and I'm afraid that my email would reflect that and come across as unprofessional. I want to explain myself and my lack of productivity, but this is all so raw and I don't know how to tell him professionally and not just completely fall apart.

Is it professional to tell my boss, and how do I do so in a way that doesn't come out as being too ranty?

Regarding the duplicate: That question is related to warning their boss about possible future time off (and the job stability issues that may be a factor), and this is more about explaining lost productivity that happened today.

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    I'm very sorry for your bad news. One small tip - you can better avoid an instinct to be ranty if you keep your e-mail as concise as possible and let your boss ask any follow-up questions he or she needs to know rather than overexplain. You could probably let your boss know the basics in a greeting, 3-4 sentences (e.g. mom has cancer, feeling terrible, may need time off in very near future, how does boss want to proceed?), and farewell. – puzzlepiece87 Aug 25 '16 at 14:33
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    I'd like to add that admitting you haven't been productive is never a good idea. You can allude to it though if you phrase it carefully. I like "If I seemed somewhat distracted today, here's why..." and then you can go into your explanation. That way you're acknowledging it without admitting that your work has suffered. You were just "distracted" :) – Chris E Aug 25 '16 at 15:40
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    @gnat I saw that question before asking this one. I thought that my question was different, because theirs was more related to warning their boss about possible future time off, and this is more about explaining lost productivity that happened today. Perhaps a better title that reflects that would be useful. – user5621 Aug 25 '16 at 16:58
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    IMO, a professional action would be to notify immediate superior of such a serious distraction as soon as you were both stable enough for meaningful communication and also noticed your own lack of productivity. Treat this the same with your boss as any non-personal crisis. If you had a regional power outage, would productivity suffer? Management needs to know if resources need realignment. And you need to get this in the open with your boss. You have more than enough pressure on you. – user2338816 Aug 26 '16 at 6:47
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    It's professional to let your boss know as soon as possible about anything that you expect will affect your performance, so business plans can take that into account (eg by giving your area of the project more help). Using as an explanation afterward is less useful. – keshlam Aug 26 '16 at 13:10

10 Answers 10


My wife has a mass in her lung. It's likely cancer.

First of all, I'm sorry about your mom. You're going to continue to be a mess.

You need to tell your boss. It's not a matter of whether it's professional or not. You've got a serious personal issue that you have to deal with and whether it directly impacts your boss or not, it does so indirectly.

I know it seems cold, but you're better off with laying out exactly the reason because your boss is more likely to understand. We all have someone we care deeply about and most of us have mothers. There's a strong chance that he'll empathize with you and be more understanding than he otherwise would if you left out the specific reasons.

For my situation, I told my boss everything. He and the company surprised me and have worked with me on working around my wife's appointments.

My point is that they may surprise you and be more understanding than you expect.

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    So sorry to hear about your wife and the OPs mother. When I got the call my mom had terminal cancer I was at work and i hung up the phone and went right to my boss's office to tell him and ask for some accomodations in my schedule so I could go out of town to see her. When my boyfriend was diagnosed with a terminal disease I asked HR about bereavement leave since I didn't see non-married partners as one of the groups we could take leave for, they changed the policy to accommodate me. Many companies will try to help in these situations, – HLGEM Aug 25 '16 at 14:44
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    Yes. Get on the phone (or Skype) with your boss ASAP and explain that a family emergency has just come up. Chances are good that your manager won't even expect you to finish the day. – Monica Cellio Aug 25 '16 at 15:13
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    Cancer sucks. You and your wife have my prayers. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 25 '16 at 15:32
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    I'm sorry about your wife christopher :( – Magisch Aug 26 '16 at 12:38
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    @Anoplexian not everyone is fortunate to have grown up with a mother in the home (or a good one). I was merely heading off the inevitable arguments that arise when someone says "everyone..." – Chris E Aug 26 '16 at 18:02

Yes, tell him - as close to 'in person' as possible - and soon.

Be honest (don't worry about the rantiness). If he doesn't know about the problem, he can't help redistribute your workload to assist you. If he just sees that you're not performing, without knowing that you have a family crisis, that will reflect badly on you.

These things happen, and a good boss will understand that.

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    Most bad and even quite a few horrible bosses understand a situation like this. – Bent Aug 25 '16 at 15:39
  • @Bent those horrible bosses understand well how terrible image this will give of their company too. – Walfrat Aug 26 '16 at 8:39

This is a severe family issue that's likely to take time away from work. Inform your boss that your mom's critically ill. (try to leave out details) and help him to make informed decisions on what to do on days when your family needs you.

Consider using your Family Medical Leave Act rights if you're in the US.

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    Don't get me going on FMLA. :) It's a law that too often turns out to be heavy on promise but light on actual application. There are so many loopholes and caveats as to make it almost useless. But hey, it looked good for Congress when they passed it. :) – Chris E Aug 25 '16 at 15:38
  • @ChristopherEstep: But the company (or boss) would in that case have to actively push for those loopholes and how would that make them look? – mathreadler Aug 25 '16 at 16:07

In cases where some external event is hampering your ability to work, you should let your boss know. This is especially true if you may need to take time off to deal with the situation. However, you probably won't have to get into the details - saying that you have a gravely ill family member should be sufficient in most cases.


A professional way to handle this is to think in both the short term and the long term.

Short Term

There's no doubt that on the day you hear of a diagnosis like this, that you will be a wreck. Take time off today the same way you would if you woke up with a physical ailment - you are just as impaired as if you had a killer headache or a horrible cold.

Given that you work remote, in some jobs it's OK for this to be an email, so that you aren't leaving a long voicemail. As with any outage, the communication should include:

  • how many hours/days off immediately
  • handoffs on anything urgent w/respect to the time off
  • emergency instructions if needed

Keep it short and sweet "I'm feeling unwell" is adequate if you're taking the day off to handle the emotional impact in the urgent instant.

Long Term

There is more to it than the grief of a single day. While you're processing on it today, think about how to sustain yourself and your family in the long term, and then prepare to come to your boss with a plan. This longer term plan should be delivered with a phone call or a meeting.

Things to put into your plan: - be aware of employee protection - like the US FMLA laws - for serious family situations. - talk to your family about how you're going to take care of your mom right now... doctor appointments, day to day care, spending quality time with her - all should factor in. This will give you a sense of how much you're going to be out of the office - self-care - what are you going to do for yourself to keep the stress from killing you?

This informs things like where/how/how much are you going to be working and what can your job expect from you at this time.

Figure out your personal limitations and then be ready to talk to your boss about how the office expectations will work - what does your boss need from you? if you have to be out on short notice, what information will he/she need? What are the must-not-drop tasks on your list? If your hours become irregular or you end up working in a different location, is there any limitations or issues you should be aware of?

That way you have a clearer picture of what you need from work, and what you can do to make sure your work gets done.

Details about the Crisis

Cultures AND individuals will vary wildly on this one. Some people value sharing personal details, others prefer not to... It's up to you to figure out how much YOU want to share, and then to watch the cues from your boss on when to stop sharing.

I know personally, I never mind the very high level - the who and the very general what of the situation... "My mom has a very serious health issue that may be fatal. Our family is trying to figure out how to take care of her" is a fine thing... so is "My mom has cancer, and her diagnosis just got a lot worse. It might be fatal, so I'm trying to figure out how to take care of her right now, and how to get in valuable time with her" - is a lot more detail, and also fine.

First and foremost, you own your details, and you can choose what feels comfortable to you.


I have shared your position. I asked a trusted college at the company what I should do. He said, "Family comes first."

Tell your boss the situation and immediately put everything aside and go spend as much time with your mom as possible/practical.

You'll be able to find another job, but you will never have another mother. Go spend time with her, thank her, support her and listen to her stories. This is the last chance you will get.

You won't regret losing your job, but you will always regret the loss of your mother. Even if you don't get along with her, make the best use of the time you have left with her.


  • While I can understand your position, the question is about professionalism. Dropping everything without considering your colleagues and your employer, is anything but professional. – user1199 Aug 26 '16 at 23:35

You need to tell you boss. Do it over the phone if you can't meet him or her in person.

It is more professional to let you employer know that you want to preform to the best that you can offer but that you have this family issue that you need to have your schedule flexible. That way your employer won't get the wrong idea of what's going on. Your mother is going to need your help. It is going to be a lot of appointments and she isn't going to be feeling that well as she gets treatment.

  • Many people probably could not handle the emotion of a meeting or a phone call. If that is the case, a very short instant message or email should be fine to start with. "Hello boss, I just found out my mom has a bad cancer, I need to be off work today. I'll get back to you soon." – MikeP Aug 26 '16 at 19:33

First, best wishes to your mother!

You are worrying about professionalism a bit to late. If you are doing critical work, and you are unable to perform, you should notify your boss ASAP, and take a personal day.He has a chance to prepare an answer when his boss asks, redistribute your work and give you any other support you need. Especially in a telecommuting environment, where most prevalent concern is employees slacking off unmonitored. But, what's done is done.

Next step would be to think if you are done with this, and what you can do next. If you think you can start again, and recoup the time you lost (I would be careful about that, I'm pretty sure it's not the case), then stat doing it and don't mention it. If your boss notices, apologize in and show him what you have done to make up for the time lost. In this case, telling him just creates drama, without any real benefit.

In the case where you are still unable to perform to the best of your abilities, but you are around 70%, then you notify your boss that you are distracted, and suggest who can cover for you, so critical task can be redistributed, and the person covering is kept in the loop.

If your performance is going to be less than 70% then, take a few personal days. Explain what happened in a few short sentences, note that you will be supporting them as best as you can, and be prepared to spend a few hours to handover your tasks.

99% of the cases your boss will be understanding and he will appreciate the head's up. But be prepared for the rest of the cases, I had bosses telling me to take a few hours and get back to work, calling me during my father's funeral ... So be prepared for this. Whatever they say, don't give in. If they manage to convince to work more than you estimated, you will come across as exaggerating, and you "loose their trust".


If you tell boss a plain story that "mom is horribly sick", you are technically fine, but the problem is that depending on your boss you may also leave the impression that maybe you are also an emotional person. Because inside boss's head (depending on what kind of boss he/she is), he/she may think "Ok? So what? My mom has passed away last year too. It's not like your mom will heal if you don't work for me! Please be logical and don't let one loss (your mom) also cause another loss (my income and your job)".

This is why it is equally critical to ensure that you also justify your involvement with your mother in a materialistic and quantifiable manner by stating that:

  • You had to take your mom to a hospital, and arrange her papers or whatever. Perhaps you know what needs to be done in your country. I am sure there is ample of materialistic and quantifiable things you could do for your mom.

Never approach boss with only emotional aspects. Always support your emotional problems by materialistic aspects. Play safe.

And you don't need to lie. If you think deeply enough you will probably find a materialistic justification that consumed your time.

A similar situation happened to me (but with my father) by which I told the same to my boss in an email, but I also backed it up by materialistic and quantifiable arguments that justified my time could not be spent on my job for reasons beyond mere emotions. For example, I clarified that due to my Father's illness, I unfortunately had to urgently relocate him to a hospital while also taking care of some other urgent tasks as a result of this unfortunate incident, which unfortunately stripped me from the time that I needed to complete my job tasks T1, T2, ..., Tn.

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    I don't think the emotional/not emotional personality trait really comes into play here. The most stoic, non-emotional, logical person on the planet is going to have a rough time coping if his mom has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. – user5621 Aug 26 '16 at 12:43
  • @stanri that's your opinion. Do you have any proof that his boss is not of the type that I am concerned about? You don't have. Thus better play it safe as I said, and backup emotional justifications with materialistic justifications. It does not hurt. But it can be useful in case the boss is of the materialistic type that does not value emotional losses. – caveman Aug 26 '16 at 13:23

I think it's not a good idea to bring your personal matters into the workplace and period.

Rules are rules and they exist for a reason. However you are eligible to talk with your HR department and take some leaves if you need some time to fix this issue. If possible they will allocate you some leaves(unpaid).

For a example one of my friend have broke with his girlfriend. And that idiot get absent after that, not even reported the office.Even it's such a naive sentimental incident, our HR was kind enough to allocate a month of time for him as leave. He is brilliant engineer, and the company needed him, his position is harder to fill even. However still I don't recommend him taking back, because somebody like that who brings personal matters to office can't be recommended. It's little bit rude, but rules exists for a reason.

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    Yeah because a severe family emergency is in any way at all the same as breaking up with your girlfriend. In actual fact, dealing with family emergencies is part of your manager's job. They are literally there to manage resource, and to mitigate when resource becomes unavailable for reasons like this. It has gone further than being a "personal matter" in the sense that it is impacting professional performance, and there is absolutely no reason to hide it from your manager. I do wonder what you think "fixing this issue" will entail in the OP's situation. – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 26 '16 at 15:19
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    Mom Cancer ≠ girlfriend breakup. – MikeP Aug 26 '16 at 19:40
  • As a matter of fact, breaking up with your life partner may have a similar or greater impact than an illness in the family - depends on your relationships to the people involved. I would not judge that from the outside. – sleske Dec 22 '16 at 8:44