When Trouble at Home Becomes Trouble in the Office
Forty-seven percent of employees say that problems in their personal lives sometimes affect their work performance, according to new research by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates. The firm asked 24,000 employees using its employee assistance program how personal issues were affecting their work. More than 16 percent reported that their personal challenges caused absenteeism, and nearly half said it was hard for them to concentrate. Take note: If you think problems in your team's personal lives have nothing to do with you, you're wrong.
Dealing with an employee who's facing personal struggles is one of the biggest challenges you'll ever face as a boss. It's why most large corporations have well-established Employee Assistance Programs where they can send employees who need to deal with personal issues.
But what if yours is a small company without a formal EAP? In a small company, an employee who's affected by a crisis at home can be an even bigger problem, according to Bensinger, DuPont & Associates COO Marie Apke. "In a small company, every person has an impact on the bottom line," she says.
How can you help your team member get back on track--and help your company at the same time? Here are some tips:
1. Make sure you aren't part of the problem.
"Ask what the company itself is doing to contribute to stress on that employee, and see what steps you can take to alleviate it," Apke advises. "That might be a matter of changing work volume." She recommends doing an informal assessment to see how work stresses might be throwing fuel on the fire. "The organization adding stress can have a direct impact," she says.
2. Don't ask about the employee's personal life.
You may be sorely tempted to act as therapist for your troubled employee. Resist that temptation. "Don't get into the person's personal problem," she says. Even if you want to, the employee likely doesn't. "You wouldn't want the boss involved in the fact that you're going through a divorce or having trouble with your kids, or having an alcohol problem."
Instead, she recommends a just-the-facts-ma'am approach that focuses only on the specifics of the person's work performance such as increased absenteeism or if the employee appears to have trouble concentrating. "Say something like, 'You need to improve on the job, that's why you're here. If something in your personal life is affecting you, I recommend you seek assistance.'"
3. Be compassionate but fair.
If you know your employee is in a tough situation, such as having to care for an ailing family member, you may want to be as helpful as possible. If your company has fewer than 50 employees, it may be exempted from provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act that require you to give time off in this situation, but you may want to extend that offer anyhow.
Just remember, though, that other employees will take note of how you treat their struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into hard times. "Taking a compassionate approach is a good thing to do, but it has to be applied evenly across the work force. Otherwise it's not fair," Apke says."
4. Use the resources you have.
If the employee needs counseling or drug or alcohol services, you almost certainly have some resources provided by your medical insurance and/or disability carrier, Apke says. She recommends calling on these resources and referring the employee for services. "You don't want to be a case worker," she says.
And--even if your company is small--putting an employee assistance program in place might be worth considering. In fact, Apke notes, 63 percent of her firm's clients are companies with fewer than 500 employees. "Small employers need just as much help as large employers do," she says.
MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.