A personal crisis is just that — personal. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Some people may require extra leave; others may find respite by staying at work through a difficult personal time. Exploring flexible options is key.
Rose Bryant-Smith and Grevis Beard, co-authors of Fix Your Team, share their advice on how to assist your staff when the going gets tough.
Ask them what they need
If you are aware that a team member is going through a challenging personal time, ask them privately what support they need. You don’t need to know the specific details of the crisis; you just need to identify what you can do to support them.
Supporting a team member through a difficult time might require the manager to deal differently with different people. It is possible to treat people differently and still be fair to all. Where appropriate, explain the basis for your actions to the team.
Make a plan
Once you understand what that team member needs, confirm what your support plan will be. Identify what work will be done, and by whom, for the relevant period, and any time off required. Don’t plan ahead beyond the next month, as the situation may change, and be clear that the plan can be revised accordingly. If the employee needs work to be reallocated, do involve other employees in discussions too.
Consider reasonable adjustments
Australian legislation requires that employers adequately consider reasonable adjustments in the workplace for workers with illness or injury. A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is making changes to a job — including modified duties, working hours, locations, job rotation, modifying equipment and other factors — so the worker can perform the genuine and reasonable requirements of the job. They should be specific to the employee’s needs and be regularly reviewed over time. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers (2010) includes some excellent guidance.
For someone who is experiencing depression, a reasonable adjustment might be, for instance, to offer a later start in the morning. For someone experiencing a relationship breakdown during which they must assume sole custody of children, reducing hours so childcare can be managed could be considered.
Remember to write these arrangements into a plan. Of course, once people are well again and the crisis has passed, the conditions applicable to all team members should resume (noting that these conditions might include degrees of flexibility).
One of the most practical ways you can support someone going through a personal crisis is to give them flexibility in the way they work: flexible hours, including starting late or early, compressed working days or working from home, attending meetings via Skype or conference call, or flexibility around time off, including personal leave, unpaid leave or extra holiday leave.
Consider whether you can change the ‘weight’ of their work. For instance, is there a particular time-sensitive or stressful aspect of their job that you could reallocate or suspend temporarily?
Check in regularly
Once you have agreed on a plan, check in regularly with your team member to see how they are travelling and consider any further adjustments to the plan over time. Encourage them to stay in touch with you. Don’t assume they are alright because you haven’t heard from them.
Communicate with and support the rest of your team
The impact of a team member dealing with a personal crisis may be felt by other team members. They may be providing emotional support or shouldering a greater workload to cover their colleague’s incapacity. It is important to communicate to the other members of the team any changes to working arrangements that affect them, while also respecting the privacy of the employee being accommodated. For members of the team who may be emotionally upset by the crisis that their colleague is experiencing, remind them that counselling or the Employee Assistance Program is available.
Privacy is important: check first with the team member before sharing details of their situation. If they are uncomfortable with sharing private information, you can simply advise other employees that their colleague needs some time to deal with some private issues and explain the interim changes to working arrangements.
Use training judiciously
This might be the right time to foster and re-emphasise the need for tolerance and compassion in your team. Misconduct such as bullying and gossip can flourish where communication is restricted, as it is (justifiably) when personal privacy is an issue. Misunderstandings and misinterpretation of unexpected behaviour can lead to the isolation of people at just the time when they most need kindness and support.
Find out who in your area runs the best, most inspired training sessions on workplace tolerance, anti-bullying, team cohesion or the benefits of workplace diversity, and engage them to help you all keep on track.
Handle misconduct allegations
If the struggling team member has made a complaint against a colleague, or complaints have been made against them, handle those complaints in accordance with your organisation’s policies and procedures. It is important that these are seen to be applied equitably. Keep in mind that any response to their misconduct in the workplace must be accompanied by clear offers of support, such as counselling or leave.
Remember, this situation is normal. Stressful as these episodes can be, do remind yourself they are in fact normal. Every one of us will experience periods in our lives when we struggle to cope, because of illness, personal crisis, bereavement or exhaustion. At those times what we need, and have a right to expect, is the genuine support, patience and accommodation of the people with whom we work.
Fix Your Team by Rose Bryant-Smith & Grevis Beard is out now.