How to Deal with Employee Personal Issues in the Workplace

Every workplace has employees who have things going on outside of work. A sick child or family member. A tough time at home, perhaps a struggling marriage, or financial problems. Maybe an employee is battling depression, alcoholism, or mental illness. There are numerous challenges facing today’s worker. Some workplaces know about it, others sense it, but don’t know about it or have programs in place to help.

How can small businesses and HR professionals deal with employee personal issues? It starts with a supportive culture, says Rachel Hastings, Vice President of WFC Resources, a Minnesota-based company that provides consulting, training and online courses and resources to help workplaces create a healthy and integrated culture.

“The most effective support systems are always backed by a genuinely supportive culture, rather than merely programmatic, in that you can provide resources, but if employees don’t feel they can use them without penalty they will not,” says Hastings.

To demonstrate a supportive culture you consider implementing these tips and/or strategies, says Hastings:

  • Survey employees, form a focus group for discussion, or provide a suggestion box to discover what your staff’s greatest work-life conflicts are. These will vary according to demographics, business hours and employment type.
  • Create a statement, or a policy, which articulates why employee wellbeing is a core feature of your HR practices, as well as a business practice affecting your bottom line.
  • Set up, or pull together a set of resources within a reasonable budget and communicate these through different channels as frequently as possible.
  • Brief managers on the issue, providing the evidence that it makes for a better business, that this is the preferred culture of the organization, what resources are available, how to communicate with employees, and how to deal with sensitive issues such as suspected alcohol abuse or mental health issues.
  • Communicate to the workforce from the top, and especially through managers, that a reasonable support of employees personal needs is positively encouraged and expected in order to do business successfully, and that a culture which expresses disapproval or creates unnecessary obstacles to time off, or attention to personal or family care is not tolerated.

Small Business Tips and Resources

Larger companies obviously have the advantage in terms of certain resources, but there is a lot smaller companies can do:

  • Encourage a social environment where workers can get to know each other personally, fostering resources and understanding: Pot luck lunches, birthday celebrations, picnics.
  • Provide as many options to work flexibly as are suitable for job descriptions and overall coverage. For example, at the very least, offer as much choice as possible in selecting shifts, starting and finishing times, work from home when there is a weather or sickness emergency.
  • Using and promoting all the offerings from an EAP or health insurance provider.
  • State and county programs typically offer a lot of wellness resources. SHIP (Statewide health Improvement Program) and the county wellness coalitions have a lot of corporate resources, especially aimed at small and medium businesses, and work-life conflict and stress are also part of this, along with health and fitness resources.
  • Advertising free community resources. Many non-profits have corporate resources around diseases (Parkinson’s, heart disease, stroke, diabetes) or situations such as eldercare, parenting. These are sometimes in the form of written toolkits, but can be lunch-n-learns or other training, counseling and support resources.
  • Find employees who may be willing to drive an internal support group or special interest group around a health issue, ethnicity or care-giving situation.
  • Encourage fitness practices such as healthier food and beverages in meetings, walking or standing in meetings, getting up from desks periodically, taking lunch breaks, taking vacations, working reasonable hours.
  • Have managers discuss work-life balance goals with their direct reports, and also discuss as a team how to get work done more efficiently to reduce burnout and work-life conflict for everyone.

If the above steps are taken there is less need to deal with individual cases, and managers often do not want to intrude. However, they can do the following, says Hastings:

  • Keep personal wellbeing on the radar with individuals and teams, by talking about their own life outside of work, communicating resources and creating a team environment which encourages healthy self-care.
  • Practice good performance management, and keep on top of who is struggling and offer resources and support as quickly as possible.
  • Be a supportive manager: View the guide The Flexible Workplace: A Guide for Managers.
  • Create team rituals and practices around healthy communication, decision making, cooperation, team spirit, health and fitness
  • Keep a track of common complaints or issues, such as long commutes, which might be solved by ride sharing or other transit solutions, or problems with lack of choice in scheduling etc and help deal with those to support employees

Many employees will want to conceal a serious issue such as substance abuse, mental health issues, financial problems or even elder care-giving from their employer due to fear of adverse consequences, so it is advisable to proceed with caution.

Additional Resources:
Alcoholism in the workplace handbook for supervisors
How do I handle an employee’s drinking problem
Deal with employees suspected drinking

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Matt Krumrie is a career columnist and professional resume writer who has been providing helpful information and resources for job seekers and employers for 15+ years. Learn more about Krumrie via resumesbymatt.com, connect with him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mattkrumrie/) and follow him on Twitter via @MattKrumrie.

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