A traumatic event in an employee’s personal life can have a huge impact on the way they work. Sue Weekes explores how to offer support while acknowledging the needs of others
Being able to deal with organisational change is a prerequisite of modern management. You’ll find there’s no shortage of advice on how to implement a change management programme and steer your team through uncertain times.
However, an area that gets much less attention is how to guide an individual through a difficult period of personal change outside of work. This can be far more challenging for them, their colleagues and therefore the organisation.
Whether a result of a bereavement, divorce or suddenly inheriting caring responsibilities, the personal strain that such events place on an individual can seriously impact performance.
However, some organisational cultures dictate that it is not the done thing to bring the personal into the workplace.
If someone’s life is falling apart then that is the fact of the matter. No human being can cope with an infinite amount of drains on their personal resources or energy
Dr Patricia Bossons, director of The Henley Centre for Coaching and Facilitation at Henley Business School, University of Reading, and a chartered psychologist, describes this stance as “completely unrealistic”.
She says employers and managers must accept that change happens to people and that they sometimes need help to deal with it.
“If someone’s life is falling apart then that is the fact of the matter. No human being can cope with an infinite amount of drains on their personal resources or energy,” she says.
“Organisations think they can address this kind of thing purely with an intellectual approach, but they are never going to win as they are fighting a biological reaction to change.”
Bossons explains that if a manager doesn’t help, the individual’s body will start to take over the management of the situation:
“The person has tried fighting but is torn in all sorts of directions so, to keep the organism safe, the body says, ‘We’ll get ourselves out of here.’ The unconscious mind takes over and the person is likely to be off sick for six months because of the fight or flight mechanism.”
Take your time
This is exactly what happened to Tina, a senior manager with a major corporate, after her widowed father died.
Before his death, the combination of dealing with his dementia and terminal cancer, as well as a demanding full-time job, was starting to take its toll.
She returned to work two days after his funeral and found herself in the middle of a tricky HR situation.
“I realised I had returned too soon to be able to deal with a work problem as I was grieving for my father,” she explains.
“I was signed off by my GP with bereavement reaction for two weeks and then advised by him to return on reduced hours for two weeks.
"My manager at the time seemed unable to recognise that this would have any impact on my performance or my ability to deal with a challenging staff situation.
“I sought support from the HR department but I felt that my condition was not recognised. Ultimately, I continued to work through the next four months feeling isolated and unsupported by my employer, and was then signed off by my GP with acute stress and depression for six months.
"Had my employer recognised the need for me to have a break or offered increased support earlier on, I think it would have helped enormously.”
The big challenge when dealing with such a situation is finding a way to look after the needs of the individual, the team and the company.
“Of course, managers wish to do everything they can to help an employee, but they also need to recognise that employees are one of several stakeholder groups that need to be considered.
"Customers and suppliers are also stakeholders, as are shareholders, and ultimately the organisation has its own goals,” says Dr Rob Yeung, director at leadership consulting firm Talentspace and author of E is for Exceptional: The New Science of Success.
“Managers need to keep things balanced and in perspective.”
This approach involves creating strategies to deal with the problem in both the short and longer term, as well as making allowances for the relative needs of each group of stakeholders.
“Managers sometimes get it wrong by thinking about what needs doing now rather than considering the longer term consequences,” he says, adding that those managers who are highly empathetic may want to help a struggling employee too much to the detriment of the rest of the team.
If this situation continues for too long, colleagues may grow to resent the manager’s focus on one individual. Yeung, who is also a chartered psychologist, reminds managers that not everyone is thinking rationally during these periods.
“That’s the whole point of emotions. Even though you as a manager may be thinking clearly about the situation and recognise you have to support the individual, others may be going home whingeing because they had to do X, Y and Z tasks and are saying that they wouldn’t burden a colleague in the same way,” he says.
“This creates a negative climate and erodes trust with their manager.”
The principle that Yeung urges managers to keep in mind is that people hate uncertainty, and the individual’s colleagues can usually adjust if they know how long a situation may last and the scope of the possible effects.
“People are perfectly comfortable with someone taking maternity leave or an extended sabbatical,” he says. “Once they know the rules of the game they can adjust.”
Once practical strategies are put in place to minimise the impact on day-to-day operations, the manager will have more time to offer emotional support to the individual if appropriate.
Some individuals are uncomfortable talking about personal issues at work; similarly, the more task-focused, less emotionally intelligent managers may struggle in this area, too.
Offering a sympathetic ear and holding an open chat with the individual is a good approach, says John M Fisher, director of C2D Coaching and a chartered occupational psychologist.
His ‘process of transition’ curve is widely used in personal and organisational change programmes.
“Ask some coaching style questions about what has happened and what needs to happen to help the person move on,” he advises.
“It gets them thinking more positively and makes them more solutions-focused, which takes the attention away from what’s happened. One of the traps people fall into when it comes to personal change is that they are sucked into thinking about the past.”
Managers should also be alert to what isn’t being said in such conversations as this can provide invaluable insight into how the person is really feeling.
The more emotionally intelligent the manager, the easier they will find this approach. What managers must avoid though, says Fisher, is over-empathising and what he calls “smother love”, which can disempower the individual and make the situation worse.
“If they see someone else taking over it can lead to them feeling even more vulnerable and less in control and powerless,” he says. “They don’t know what to do, so turn it around on themselves and feel guilty.”
Helping managers to develop coaching skills can better equip them to deal with the emotional side of management.
Bossons says some organisations are doing a lot of work in helping managers develop a more holistic approach when it comes to noticing what is going on in the workplace.
This can lead to managers making themselves available for conversations with troubled employees.
“We see quite a lot of organisations bring in mentoring and coaching as part of a central culture, which means hopefully there will be resources available for managers to take care of mental wellbeing,” she says.
Closer to home
Managers and leaders, of course, aren’t immune to the impact of personal change themselves, and a bereavement or divorce can have an equally derailing effect on their teams and their own performance.
How managers deal with the situation will be very much down to their personality and characteristics, such as their ability to compartmentalise.
Fisher says task-focused managers will sometimes try to hide or camouflage their problems and not realise there is “leakage” into their professional lives.
“The key is working through the [transition] curve, asking ‘What do I want to happen?’ and taking ownership of making it happen,” he says.
Yeung agrees that a prolonged preoccupation with a personal issue will inevitably lead to mistakes,even if a manager thinks they are coping.
He recommends asking for feedback from some “trusted confidants” on performance.
Both Yeung and Fisher stress that in such cases it is important to “over-communicate”. This doesn’t mean sharing information about the problem, but rather explaining how it is being dealt with, how it will affect them and a rough time frame of how long it may continue.
Bossons says the managers and leaders who cope best when a major personal issue arises are those who have good support networks in place.
“This tends to be compounded by their ability to communicate. They will say that they are going through a tough time, they’re going to take two weeks off to deal with it, and will have a senior team member who can step in,” she says.
“They are not trying to be superman or woman and even if they are the managing director they take an intelligent approach to knowing what their limits are. As a manager, if one area of your personal life is overwhelming, it is unrealistic to expect you to do three weeks of intense merger and acquisitions work.
"So take the pre-emptive step of going to see the CEO and finance director and saying, ‘It’s bad timing, but count me out ¬this time.’ That way, they have a chance to deal with it.”
And you have the chance to come back to work stronger