• Wednesday, 24 July 2024
How to support team members during a personal crisis

How to support team members during a personal crisis

Helping employees cope with personal struggles is a test of leadership. Along with comforting words, offering practical support is vital without crossing the line.

I was recently speaking to a CEO who prides herself on being an empathetic leader. She was concerned that one of her top leaders seemed distracted and had started missing deadlines. She had a strong feeling that something was troubling him in his personal life. She wasn’t sure how to approach the situation without overstepping. She wondered if she should reach out directly, offer him space, or wait for him to come to her. What was the best way to show her support while respecting his privacy?

As leaders, we all want to do whatever we can to support our team members at work. But what happens when a team member faces a personal crisis seemingly unrelated to their work?

While most people strive to separate their professional and personal lives, the two are still inextricably linked. Crises like death, divorce, mental health issues and illness in the family can easily spill over into the workplace and throw employees off course. This is totally understandable, but it does put managers in a tricky spot. How do you find the balance between being supportive and being intrusive? How can you help safeguard their emotional well-being while also making sure their career doesn’t suffer?

This week, my message focuses on managing employees during a personal crisis they might be dealing with and how to lend support in meaningful ways. Let’s also talk about what steps you can take to ensure that one person’s struggle doesn’t become a sore point for the rest of the team.

As a piece by Rainmaker Thinking wisely reminds leaders:

Remember that everybody — everybody, even you — has a personal life. Some personal challenges are more difficult than others. But everybody has these challenges and must deal with them from time to time. There are some personal issues that are tough for anyone — even the most private compartmentalizer — to keep under wraps.

If not managed correctly, an employee’s personal crisis could affect not only their individual performance but also have negative implications for the rest of the team. To prevent things from reaching this stage, managers should take a thoughtful approach.

"When co-workers face a crisis, our first instinct is to express sympathy and say, “We are all there for you.” But is that where our job ends?"

As leaders, surely we owe it to our team members to try to help in more intentional, tangible ways.

Here are nine suggestions for managing team members through a personal crisis: 

1. Ask and listen, without prying.

A silver lining of the Covid-19 years is that talking about personal challenges, including health concerns and family-related issues, has become much more normalised at the workplace. At the same time, getting overly inquisitive or pushy is not a wise move.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol from Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on workplace mental health, offer helpful advice on how to approach the conversation:

Go beyond a simple “How are you?” and ask specific questions about what supports would be helpful. Wait for the full answer. Really listen, and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.

Keep in mind that your team member may not want to share too many details. Respect their privacy. Resist the urge to probe into specifics or offer unsolicited advice, especially when it comes to sensitive matters like medical or marital issues. Instead, create an empathetic space where you can put your heads together to address the issue of work during the challenging period. (It goes without saying that any personal information shared with you should be kept strictly confidential.)

2. Plan in advance for absence.

Your team member will likely need some time to regroup and handle the situation. In an emergency, make all possible efforts to secure sufficient time off and reduce work-related stress. Often, people need a few days away to get a grip on things, after which they can return to work.

For longer-term challenges, like an illness in the family or a domestic issue, sit down together and devise a feasible timeline, including days they can take off, work from home or leave early. This type of planned flexibility will not only give the person peace of mind during an uncertain situation but also allow you to foresee and limit the impact on your team.
Ask your team member for suggestions rather than simply imposing your own ideas. As the HBR article mentioned above notes:

The employee may have an idea for a temporary arrangement — some time off, handing off a project to a colleague, or a more flexible schedule for a few weeks — that is amenable to you.

3. Pitch in as a team.

Loop in the rest of your team members, sharing only as much information as the individual is comfortable with. Work together to reduce the person’s workload temporarily. Distribute additional tasks as fairly as possible so that 1-2 people don’t start feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

As leaders, our goal must be to foster a caring, collaborative environment where co-workers actually want to help each other, without feeling forced or used. Don’t take people’s contributions for granted: convey your appreciation for them going above and beyond, and join the effort by personally picking up some of the extra load.

4. Keep checking in.

If the initial distress dissipates, and things return to some kind of normalcy, make an effort to follow up regularly. Send a quick email or stop by the person’s desk to ask how things are going. This lets your team member know that you are mindful of their struggle and care about their wellbeing. Additionally, as the situation evolves, they may need different types of support.

5. Don’t play ‘therapist’.

Your goal is to be supportive while remaining professional. Stick to your role as a manager and avoid becoming your team member’s de-facto confidante or shoulder to cry on. Making yourself available for long talks about their personal matters will make it harder to have honest (and sometimes difficult) discussions about work. Instead, consider directing them to the appropriate HR or mental health resources. As the Rainmaker Thinking piece (mentioned above) explains:

Often, the biggest favor you can do for this person is to refocus their mindset on the work: “No matter what is going on in your personal life, work is a place where you can succeed and feel good about yourself and what you do.”

6. Show tough love.

Leadership includes the responsibility of having uncomfortable conversations when needed. If the concessions made for your team member are becoming unreasonable, affecting team morale/performance, or seem to be extending indefinitely, then it’s time for some tough love.

Be sympathetic but fair. Clarify your expectations going forward, preferably with a timeline attached. Be direct about the fact that certain standards and objectives must be met; failing to do so could damage the person’s reputation and hinder their career progression. Emphasise that you are keen to find a solution to the problem. Use words like “we”, “us” and “our” to avoid alienating the person.

7. Guard against favouritism.

Another thing to watch out for is preferential treatment. If certain team members receive several allowances during a crisis while others are largely overlooked, this will build resentment and frustration in the team. Nip such issues in the bud before they morph into something more toxic.

As a manager, you might feel certain employees are more capable of handling personal problems, perhaps because they seem stoic and go on with “business as usual”. But it’s important to realize that even people who appear very calm, collected and strong on the outside could be struggling greatly. Have a frank conversation with these team members to determine the best way to support them. It’s possible they may genuinely need less help — but this is something that should be confirmed rather than assumed.

8. Be the change.

One of the best ways to effect positive change is by modelling healthy behaviours. Leaders must demonstrate what it looks like to take care of oneself during tough times. Take breaks to recharge yourself. Go on vacation after a particularly stressful period. If dealing with a personal issue, be transparent (to the extent you feel comfortable) and ask for help. When team members see how you value your own well-being, they’ll be much more likely to proactively come to you during a personal crisis.

9. Spot the signs.

Some personal issues can remain invisible until the person finally reaches a breaking point. Managers should keep an eye out for warning signs that a team member is struggling. Building strong relationships and scheduling one-on-one check-ins will help you uncover problems early on.

Mental health issues can be particularly tough to detect. Look for signs of burnout, indicated by unusual exhaustion, irritability and reduced productivity. Affected employees can be offered support in the form of access to well-being resources, flexible work arrangements, or adjusted workloads.

Helping team members through a personal crisis is a challenge that every manager will encounter at some point. Think of it as a balancing act. The goal is to be empathetic and supportive without taking on the role of a therapist. Your aim should be to safeguard the employee’s well-being while also minimising the impact on work performance and team morale. Establishing a workplace culture of compassion and fairness will go a long way in managing such situations when they occur.

While writing this post, I feel immense gratitude to my incredible bosses and teammates who went above and beyond to support me during the more troubling times in my life. You had my back when I needed it the most. Thank you for your kindness and understanding!

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