What to do when personal issues start affecting work

Everyone has a tough day at some stage. Even the most professional employee can be knocked off balance by a difficult situation that's happening outside of the office. But what if someone in your team is consistently showing signs of non-work related stress and they've started dropping the ball and making glaring errors? 

It’s more common than you’d expect

In a survey of 24,000 employees by Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, 47% said their work was affected by their personal lives at times. Nearly half had difficulties with concentration and over 16% said personal problems caused them to take time off. 

Add to this beyondblue’s estimate that 1 in 5 employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition at any given time, and you start to see just how common this issue is. 

How can I help?

There are definitely things you can do to make life easier for someone under stress - and to minimise any negative impacts on your business. Here are five simple steps to get started.  

1. Check you’re not the problem.

There’s always a chance that the signs of stress you’ve noticed have actually been caused by the workplace and not the employee's personal life. So take a moment to consider whether their responsibilities and workload have changed recently. If in doubt, make time to sit down with them and ask whether there are any projects that feel particularly challenging, giving them space to suggest changes.   

2. Listen, but don’t get involved.

If the problem is personal, remember that you don’t need to know everything. Resist the urge to act as therapist, and let the employee know that they don’t need to share any specific details. All you need to do is focus on the what’s happening at work, and talk through what can be changed to support them. 

3. Offer compassionate, fair solutions.

You might be tempted to make a grand gesture to help this employee, but that can backfire. If you’re offering changes to workload or hours, suggest they’re in place for a set period of time with the understanding that they will be revisited on a particular date. This should help mitigate any resentment from other team members about special treatment. If anyone still seems unhappy, remind them that this kind of support will be there for them too, if and when they ever need it. 

4. Involve other professionals.

Depending on the severity of the problem, you may want to seek advice from your employee’s doctor. Follow their advice - if they suggest time off, it’s in your interest to allow it. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, make sure the employee has access to it (if you don’t have an EAP, this might be the time to consider one). Of course, confidentiality is key, but if other managers need to know about certain aspects of the situation, keep them in the loop. 

5. Move on when the time is right.

Once things are more stable for your employee and you’re satisfied the issue is resolved, it’s time to refocus on the next steps they can take in their career. Acknowledge the resilience they’ve shown in getting through this tough situation, then make it clear what they can do to get back on track. If they need further support, offer this too.

After all, it’s in your interests as well as theirs that they regain their focus as quickly as possible. 

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