Dear Addi P.,
One of my employees is going through a painful divorce. I'm concerned about his well-being, as well as how the stress might affect his work performance. How can I support my employees during difficult life changes? Can a resource, like an employee assistance program, help?
— Sympathetic Boss in Boston
Dear Sympathetic Boss,
Your compassion toward your employees is commendable and no doubt helps to foster a sense of camaraderie and team spirit in the workplace. The challenge of coping with personal issues like divorce, death in the family, elder caregiving, serious illness, addiction or debt is bound to carry over into the work environment.
Responding to Stress Signals
It is understandable that you would be concerned about whether this type of stress could impact your employee's work performance. The consequences might show up in office behavior like irritability, depression, moodiness, poor judgment, absenteeism, tardiness or lack of concentration.
If you've already started to notice a negative change, talk about it with your employee. Handling these issues can be a delicate process, since you want to respect your employee's privacy and attend to the needs of your business. Without prying, let him know that you're aware he's going through a tough time and that you're there to offer whatever support you can. However, make sure he understands the importance of doing his job well and make your performance expectations clear.
Generally, managers should not offer their reports advice about their personal lives. It's likely OK to be a sounding board if you feel comfortable in that role. But don't invite your employee to reveal intimate information about his soon-to-be ex or anything else that may be a protected characteristic, and don't weigh in with your own opinions about the situation.
If your company has a PTO or personal leave policy, consider permitting the employee to take time off, or rearrange his work schedule to respond to any legal or personal matters. Find out if someone in your organization who handles HR operations can provide a list of local resources, such as counseling centers and support groups, that your employee may find useful. Mental health issues, including those related to stress from personal matters, may be covered by the ADA and require you to work with the employee to find accommodations.
Be evenhanded in your response to employee personal matters. While your relationship with every employee won't be the same, it's important that you treat all employees equally and apply policies consistently when they are dealing with personal matters.
Where Employee Assistance Programs Can Help
One way to ensure that all your employees have compassionate, professional help available in times of personal crisis is to have a formal employee assistance program — or EAP — in place.
EAPs provide a wide range of services, "from consultation at the strategic level about issues with organization-wide implications to individual assistance to employees and family members experiencing personal difficulties," notes the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
Besides helping employees resolve personal problems that may be interfering with their work, an EAP might also offer other services such as nurse telephone consultations, legal referrals and help with finding elder care services.
Whatever method you use to reach out to employees facing difficult times, showing you care helps to encourage good workers to weather the storm and stick around.
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