Human Resource
Staff well-being
October 22, 2009

What can you do when one of your staff is breaking up because of a crisis outside work? It’s almost impossible to keep work and personal lives completely separate. But what do you do when an employee’s personal problems seep into the workplace and won’t go away? Simon Wicks finds out.

Most employers recognise that significant events in a staff member’s life can’t be left completely at the door. Weddings, babies and other landmark events in people’s lives can often be cause for a morale-boosting celebration, for example; when sadder events such as bereavements occur, people tend to rally round and support their colleague through their crisis.

Some personal problems, however, are so debilitating that friendly support just isn’t enough. Addictions, debt, divorce and depression, for instance, can impair an individual’s mood and performance, damage working relationships and reduce team productivity.

In general, an employee’s personal life is not your business. But performance at work is your concern and you are entitled to address it. In doing so, you may have to support an employee through a personal crisis.

Identify the problem

Warning signs of a personal problem include out-of-character behaviour, such as poor time-keeping, tetchiness, absenteeism or a persistent drop in performance. Employers have a legal duty to help staff deal with work-related mental health, so you will need firstly to establish whether the employee’s problem is linked to work.

With their manager, invite them for an informal interview to discuss their performance and be clear that this is not a disciplinary hearing. Concentrate on instances of poor performance and ask whether they are experiencing any workplace problems. If it is a work issue, you should address it through appropriate workplace mechanisms.

If it is not work-related, you will have to tread more carefully – but it nevertheless makes good business sense to be supportive. In general, you should limit your discussion to how a problem is affecting the employee’s work; you are not in a counselling relationship with the employee, and could even find yourself breaching your duty of care if you offer inappropriate advice.

Providing support

You are likely to be able to offer practical help for some problems. If the employee has childcare difficulties, they are entitled to parental leave; if they are caring for a sick relative, you could offer flexible working; if they have an emergency involving a dependant, you are obliged to give them reasonable time off. Giving compassionate leave for these and other problems can prevent escalation.

If the employee’s problem is more personal, such as an addiction or a relationship breakdown, avoid becoming directly involved. Instead, encourage them to seek treatment or counselling, perhaps through an Employee Assistance Programme. They are not obliged to take your advice; but you may be able to make it a more attractive option if you offer paid sick leave to receive treatment and temporarily reduce their workload.

Review performance

You should underpin your support strategy with a review of the employee’s workload. Scale this back, if necessary, or give them achievable goals that will help them see clear progress as their situation improves. Conduct regular, informal performance reviews to help the employee overcome any work-related difficulties.

If their behaviour continues to cause concern, you may have to fall back on your firm’s disciplinary procedures. If so, be sure to follow the Acas code of practice and give a clear indication of when disciplinary proceedings will have to be initiated.

Your final option is to consider dismissal, but only after the disciplinary procedure has been correctly followed and all reasonable options exhausted. In the event that your former employee takes you to a tribunal, you will have to show that you have followed procedure to the letter.

Published Friday.Performance Management, Wellbeing

About author

Dr Shailesh Thaker

Dr. Shailesh Thaker is a world-renowned management thinker and trainer on organizational behavior and development. He is the CLO of Knowledge Plus Inc., a highly reputed training firm based in Ahmedabad, India, helping organizations to achieve international benchmarks in management practices.

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