pregnant woman hands on tummy

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how quickly life can change. No matter our personal or professional goals, sometimes major events in our lives take us on a different trajectory. This is what’s known as a life shift. 

A life shift is any event that drastically alters your routine and has a major emotional impact. These events are often unexpected and force you to question your personal values. Life shifts include events such as the birth of a child, a health crisis, a financial setback, or the death of a loved one.

Even when life shifts aren’t inherently negative, you may still experience stress. You might worry how your life will change and how the disruption might impact your career. But even when a life shift leaves you temporarily sidelined, the long-term impact isn’t always bad. 

Here are three unexpected ways a life shift can actually improve your professional outlook:

1. It can bring you closer to your co-workers.

Whenever you’re blindsided by a major life event, it’s tempting to feel that you’re all alone and that no one can relate. But the truth is that life shifts are extremely common. A recent study followed 14,000 people over the course of 16 years. It found that participants experienced one of the four most common events (illness or injury of a family member, a new job, a pregnancy, or a move) every four and a half years, on average. 

No matter what you’re going through, chances are good that the people around you have experienced something similar — even if they never talk about it. Often people avoid heavy topics for fear of being judged or to maintain a sense of normalcy at work. There’s also a stigma around bringing personal problems into the workplace, but people’s fears of judgment may be unfounded. According to a recent study, displaying vulnerability actually makes others view us more positively. 

The best thing you can do is be transparent with your co-workers. You don’t have to share the nitty-gritty details — just the broad strokes are fine. You can say something like, “My wife was diagnosed with cancer and is currently going through chemotherapy. I’m going to be in and out of the office quite a bit over the next few months, and I just wanted you to know why.” 

Even if your co-workers have never cared for a spouse with cancer, they likely have a close family member who’s gone through something similar. You may be astounded by the outpouring of love and support you receive from those around you.

2. It forces you to establish a better work-life balance.

Whether you’re caring for an ailing parent or having a baby, you’re probably stressed about being sidelined from work. You may worry about falling behind or falling off the corporate ladder, and these worries are completely normal. 

According to one study of pregnant women, two-thirds were worried that taking maternity leave could put their job at risk. While many companies still expect their employees to “put work first,” we are headed toward a more compassionate, family-centric professional culture. Home and work life collided during the pandemic, and employers are starting to feel the impact. (Six percent of parents left their jobs, and 11 percent turned down promotions due to a lack of childcare.) In the U.S., more states are passing paid family and medical leave policies.

Of course, this is of little comfort if you’re currently working at a company that isn’t supporting you. You may feel pressure to keep up your normal pace or return to work quickly, but this added stress can be extremely harmful to your mental health.

The best thing you can do right now is show yourself compassion and use this time to recalibrate your work-life balance. If your finances allow, consider reducing your hours, requesting a leave of absence, or looking for a job that offers greater flexibility. No matter what you’re going through, taking care of yourself and your loved ones is the most important thing.

3. It can reveal a new passion or take you in a new direction.

Major life changes have a way of reshuffling our priorities. When you experience the death of a parent, a divorce, or a health crisis, you might find that your goals shift or that your old job is no longer compatible with your values. Other times a crisis reveals an unmet need, and you find yourself in a position to help.

“In 2002, my wife and I went through a high-risk pregnancy,” writes Bob Goldwater, a partner at the Goldwater Law Firm. “Our triplets were born prematurely at 26 weeks. There were many problems, as you might expect, some of which required feeding tubes, spending much of that first year in and out of hospitals, and searching for reliable information as we did our best to care for them.”

Bob’s experiences prompted him and his wife to launch, a nonprofit that helps other parents cope with pediatric feeding disorders. Some of the most successful companies and nonprofits were started by people with a deep personal connection to the cause. The initiative now known as Locks of Love was led by Madonna Coffman, a woman who lost her hair from alopecia and watched her young daughter develop the same disorder.

Even if you don’t have any ambitions to start a charity or nonprofit, you can still use this life shift as an opportunity to reevaluate your professional ambitions. It might mean following your passion or moving into a new role at work.

Major life shifts are never easy, but they don’t have to be career-killers. That’s not to say you won’t experience setbacks or that you shouldn’t grieve. Just know that whatever feelings you’re experiencing are temporary. You will begin to feel like your old self again, and new opportunities will come your way. Even the most serious life shifts can open unexpected doors. You just have to be open to change.